December 31, 2009

ENO, our gateway to opera

By Patrick Carnegy [Times Literary Supplement, 30 December 2009]

London’s English National Opera has been in existence in one guise or another for nearly 130 years. Its story, by and large, is that of operatic life in England since the Victorian era. Jeremy Sams, witty translator for today’s ENO, once said that opera appealed to the British precisely because it was foreign and sexy. Don’t spoil the musical magic and the frocks by compelling us to pay attention to the words: let’s just join Dr Johnson and revel in the “exotic and irrational entertainment”.

Posted by Gary at 12:13 PM

December 30, 2009

Boston Baroque to conduct itself in comedic ways

By Keith Powers [Boston Herald, 30 December 2009]

Did you ever want to kick your boss off his pedestal and take over?

Baritone David Kravitz has a plan to do just that at Boston Baroque’s New Year’s concerts at Sanders Theatre this week.

Posted by Gary at 10:56 AM

December 29, 2009

58th Wexford Festival Opera

The re-build itself necessitated some inventive venue re-allocation, the Dun Mhuire Hall housing a reduced festival in 2006; while the logistics of transporting artists, punters, caterers et al. to St Johnston’s Castle for the June festival in 2007 must have caused a few headaches. Still, the giant space-age balloon in which that summer festival was — surprisingly successfully — housed, and the other difficulties, inconveniences and conundrums along the way, could all presumably be borne because of the light at the end of the tunnel: the stunning new opera house ingeniously constructed on the site of the old. However, just one year after its justly celebrated re-opening, Wexford found itself in the press for less appealing reasons — rumours of a proposed merger with Dublin-based Opera Ireland and the touring Opera Theatre Company (now, it seems, put aside, however temporarily). The problem: the global credit crunch and bankrupt Irish bankers. The result: a festival reduced to just 12 days, with one of Agler’s most successful innovations — the one-act matinées — abandoned or re-deployed as ‘replacements’ for previously proposed main works.

In the event, despite the gloom-laden reports in the weeks leading up to the 2009 festival, opera and music were still at the fore, and standards — of singing, playing and conducting — were pleasingly high, although this year’s three operas offered strikingly different theatrical experiences.

The festival opened with John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, a co-production with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, one which is hoped to be the first of many in an ongoing artistic relationship with the American opera house. Commissioned in 1980, completed in 1987, and first performed with a starry cast at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York in 1991, Corigliano’s gargantuan opera spans three worlds: the historical milieu of the French Revolution, the spirit world of those executed in its aftermath and who now haunt Versailles, and the theatrical domain of the third play in Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy, La Mère coupable, staged to entertain the ghosts. In this liminal hinterland, Beaumarchais re-writes ‘real’ and fictional history in order to spare Marie-Antoinette her bloody fate — and satisfy his own love for the tragic queen — only for her ultimately to acknowledge his love, refuse his aid and accept her destiny.

Confused? The antics of Susanna and Figaro as they seek to thwart the machinations of the political conniver Bégearss, the pantomime baddie, while retaining their own revolutionary integrity, interweave with the restaging of Marie Antoinette’s trial; indeed, Dr Who’s time-travelling antics seem rather tame in comparison. Theatrical and literary conceits abound, narrative frames accumulate, and when even Beaumarchais feels impelled to abandon his authorial rights, to enter his own story and manipulate events from within, we wonder just who is in the driving seat? Fortunately, James Robinson’s staging, with imaginative designs by Allen Moyer and James Schuette, brought some dramatic clarity where it seemed lacking in the libretto.

George van Bergin as Beaumarchais, was the dramatic mainstay of this performance. With a confident stage presence, sure sense of pace and timing, and assertive baritone which projected well, he kept the show on the road. Baritone Christopher Feigum enjoyed himself as Figaro, but was vocally a little underwhelming. The role of Marie Antoinette is an exhausting sing and Maria Kanyova acquitted herself well, in an often touching and always committed portrayal. A tender moment of reprieve from the melodrama was supplied by the beautiful duet for Cherubino (Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy) and Rosina (Sri Lankan soprano Kishani Jayasinghe).

Purporting to be a ‘grand opera bouffe’ — a first hint of genre dysfunction, perhaps — The Ghosts of Versailles is an eclectic pick-and-mix encompassing a multitude of dramatic modes: comedy and tragedy, melodrama and farce, satire and sentimentality. Corigliano has adopted a similarly diverse range of musical styles — are they intended to complement the action, or simply to demonstrate his own facile imitative skills? There are snatches of pseudo Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Wagner, Barber, Britten … and, as the programme reveals, ‘Gregorian chant, North African Arabic traditions, the late eighteenth-century alla turca operas, French grand opera, Broadway and serialism’. In short, there is just too much on offer for the eye and ear. Though cleverly assembled, this is a musical hotch-potch. Parodies and pastiche wear irritatingly thin; in particular, the burlesque Turkish finale to Act I, originally written as a vehicle for Marilyn Horne, was repetitive, ridiculous and dramatically superfluous. What of Corigliano’s own music? There are a few modernist twists and clichés, some atmospheric orchestral interludes poignantly suggestive of the ghosts’ spiritual terrain, but on the whole the writing is repetitive and bland. Synthesiser does not sit happily alongside harpsichord. By turns intriguing and imaginative, perplexing and irksome, this was certainly a committed, intelligent and engaging staging of a work which ultimately fails to convince.

The double-bill, Une education manqué by Emmanuel Chabrier and La Cambiale di matrimonio by Rossini, offered an opportunity to hear two seldom performed but richly deserving works. Originally planned as one-act matinées in the Short Works programme, the scrapping of the latter saw the works placed on the main stage. Theatrically slight but musically neat, there is no reason why this double-bill, sharing themes of sex and marriage, should not succeed, but it needs a surer hand than director Roberto Recchio was able to offer.

The Chabrier in particular has a charming score, and conductor Christopher Frankin made the colours sparkle to match the glitter and glamour of Lorenzo Cutuli’s stylish set and Claudia Pernigotti’s elaborate period costumes. And we were once more treated to the sweet blend of Kishani Jayasinghe and Paula Murrihy, as Gontran and Hélène, the innocent newly-weds who are uncertain as to what should happen on their wedding night. Jayasinghe enjoyed the trouser role of Gontran, and as Master Pausanias, the tipsy tutor who has neglected to instruct his charge in the essential matters of life, bass baritone Luca Dall’Amico blustered and bluffed suitably. The attractive staging owed no small debt to Rosenkavalier but, despite some pleasant singing, the characters themselves lacked genuine sympathetic qualities. The lifeless, wooden acting murdered any hint of sexual frisson or sophistication in Chabrier’s score. Moreover, the diction was dreadfully poor — it was hard to determine the language let alone particular words — which makes one wonder why French singers were not engaged.

If Recchio’s Chabrier was direction-less, his account of Rossini’s one-act farce La Cambiale di matrimonio suffered from a surfeit of directorial manhandling, much of it totally unfathomable. Rossini sets out to ridicule the commercial motives underpinning the nineteenth-century bourgeois marriage. The blank matrimonial bill of the title is sent to the English merchant, Tobias Mill, by an eccentric Canadian businessman, Mr Slook. Mill tries to marry off his daughter, against her wishes; her penniless lover, Edoardo, endeavours to thwart the plans, while Slook gets increasingly fed up with the European way of doing things. It’s a case of the Old World versus the New; but this doesn’t explain Recchio’s decision to update the action to 2049, flashing quotations from Miranda’s ‘Brave New World’ speech from The Tempest and snippets from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World across the backdrop and plastering the singers’ foreheads with barcodes. Everything and everyone is presumably ‘up for sale’; but who would buy these ugly, garish specimens, with their ghastly metallic costumes and clunky robotic movements. The muddled ensembles suggested that the singers didn’t understand what it was all about either. The singing was pretty poor too. As Fanny, Pervin Chakar shouted at full volume throughout, while Vittorio Prato’s Slook could hardly be heard. The genetic modification of this opera produced a real monster.

Thank goodness, then, for the last of Wexford’s productions, Donizetti’s late opera Maria Padilla, which confirmed what previous Wexford Festivals have suggested: that this composer can always be relied upon to provide the goods when an ‘unjustly neglected master-piece’ is required.

The opera tells the tragedy of Maria Padilla, seduced by the cruel Don Pedro of Castile, to the despair of her father, Don Ruiz, whose complaints about his daughter’s loss of honour earn him a bloody beating by the royal henchmen. Maligned by the King’s courtiers, Maria is finally betrayed by the regent himself, when he marries a French princess in order to meet the popular demand for a more politically acceptable union.

The singing was uniformly superb, but in the title role, the American soprano Barbara Quintiliani earned every superlative. Quintiliani needed all the resources of her formidable technique for this incredibly demanding role; and she positively relished the fiendish coloratura, while descending easily into a dark chest register. Her varied palette was equalled by a full emotional range. Indeed, she seemed totally at ease throughout, spinning a stream of golden sound, effortlessly negotiating leaps and extremes, and demonstrating superhuman stamina and breath control. Quintiliani deserves superstar status: unfortunately her physical size may not endear her to a media which prefers their sopranos more svelte and photo-shoot-friendly, but such a talent can surely not be kept in the shadows for long. She was admirably partnered here by mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemokldize, singing the role of Ines, Maria’s sister, and the accomplishments of the ladies were matched by the two male leads, Italian baritone Marco Caria as Don Pedro and Welsh tenor Adriano Grazini as Don Ruiz, whose idiomatic bel canto singing was stylish and assured, if a little unvaried. The role of Ruiz is an interesting role, for it is surely one of the few for an elderly tenor in this repertoire. Grazini excelled in Act 3, in a powerful and affecting scene where Maria futilely attempts to comfort him in the madness which has followed his punishment and humiliation.

Sadly the director, Marco Gandini, seemed determined to dilute the emotional power and dramatic intensity of the work. The set designs of Mauro Tinti cluttered the set, first with a mountain of masonry and debris, then with endless rows of chairs and finally in Act 3 with some bizarre floating corpses … all of which necessitated much obstacle-climbing and prop-shifting, weakening the dramatic focus and momentum.

The staging of the ending was equally perplexing. The programme tells us that when Maria confronts Don Pedro in the final scene he renounces his French princess, only for Maria to fall ‘lifeless at his feet’. Not here though. Gandini obviously thought he knew better than composer and librettist: he decided that it was Pedro’s new queen, Bianca, who should die — presumably in shock at the sight of Maria — thereby enabling a fairy-tale reconciliation and ‘happy-ever-after’ resolution, an incongruous conclusion accompanied by music which speaks of menace, despair and death. Fortunately, the conductor had the measure of the work. This was controlled, confident conducting from David Agler, who demonstrated impressive command of both the whole dramatic shape and the musical details. It was by far the most musically satisfying offering of this year’s festival.

The Short Works may have fallen by the wayside but there was plenty of other musical fare on offer — including the daily lunchtime recitals in St. Iberius’ Church. Kishani Jayasinghe enjoyed her opportunity to entertain the locals, revealing a dusky lower register in Britten’s song cycle On This Island and, despite some problems with diction, an instinctive feeling for the syncopated, jazz-inspired rhythms. She indulged her vivacious sense of fun with idiomatic renditions of the lighter end of the repertoire, ‘Somebody Loves Me’ and ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ being well-received.

During their shared recital, Irish singers Owen Gilhooly (baritone) and Paula Murrily (mezzo-soprano) delivered outstanding renditions of songs by Brahms and Duparc, before inviting the audience to join them in some more homespun melodies — fortunately for Gilhooly, the amateurs knew the words better than he did!

There were some innovations too. A ‘Postcard from America’ was one of three such location-inspired entertainments (Prague and Italy being the other geographical hotspots) performed in the upper gallery at Greenacres, the local wine emporium/art gallery. This was an impressive venue for a superbly compiled sequence, put together by Curt Pajer (Head of the Music Staff of Wexford, Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Toledo Opera), which gave many of the young singers a chance to indulge their more smoochy, glitzy sides — we were treated to a string of hits from Bernstein, Weill, Gershwin, and wowed with the impassioned final chorus from Candide, a fittingly triumphant end which raised the roof of Greenacres.

With announcements that next season’s festival will be similarly curtailed, it’s worth remembering that such ‘small-scale’ music-making is the heart, and often the best, of Wexford — local enthusiasts, young talent, everyone obviously relishing the music-making Long may it continue!

Claire Seymour

Click here for a gallery of productions.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Maria_Kanyova_Wexford2009.png image_description=Maria Kanyova in Ghosts of Versailles, Wexford Festival Opera 2009 [Photo by Patrick Redmond courtesy of Wexford Festival] product=yes product_title=58th Wexford Festival Opera, 21 October — 1 November 2009 product_by= product_id=Above: Maria Kanyova in Ghosts of Versailles, Wexford Festival Opera 2009 [Photo by Patrick Redmond courtesy of Wexford Festival]
Posted by Gary at 8:49 AM

December 28, 2009

Candide, Vlaamse Opera, Antwerp

By Francis Carlin [Financial Times, 28 December 2009]

The aggressive giant chick is back. Nigel Lowery used it first in his action-packed staging of Handel’s Rinaldo in Montpellier in 2002 and now it returns in his new production of Bernstein’s problematic Candide.

Posted by Gary at 11:02 AM

Decade in review

By Joshua Kosman [SF Chronicle, 28 December 2009]

Politically and socially, economically and ecologically, the past 10 years have admittedly been pretty ghastly. But musically, it’s hard to look back on the decade of the 2000s (gosh, it’s already over and we never decided what to call it) and feel too downhearted.

Posted by Gary at 10:58 AM

December 25, 2009

An Interview with William Price

His advanced study in composition took place at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Price has a large and diverse body of music to his credit, including work for orchestra, chamber ensemble, and electro-acoustic music. We spoke via Skype on September 21, 2009.

TM: How did you get started with music? Everyone has a different trajectory.

WP: Especially now — a lot of students get into music through playing guitar in rock bands. I guess I was drafted into it. My sister was in the high school marching band. I was 11, and went with her to a band booster function, and the band director asked if I wouldn’t mind playing cymbals. I said “Sure! What’s a cymbal?” I didn’t have a clue. So I was holding the cymbals for the first couple of games, and then my band director told me that whenever the drum major pointed at me, I was supposed to crash the cymbals, which doesn’t work too well, because there’s a delay, and an eleven-year old boy doesn’t always have his attention focused on the conductor. I had my first bout of performance anxiety when I realized that everybody in the stadium knows “The Star-Spangled Banner”, and where the cymbal crashes should go. They also neglected to tell me that it was in 3, and not in 4…..

TM: It was your sister that dragged you there?

WP: Yes, and my mother. My parents are non-musicians. My father was an aerospace engineer, and my mother was a home-maker. My dad took piano lessons when he was a kid, and my mother took violin lessons, but they weren’t musically active as adults. They were always supportive of any kind of musical endeavors that my sister and I participated in.

TM: If I think of aerospace and Alabama, I think of Huntsville.

WP: Actually my dad was in the Air Force. He received his aerospace engineering degree from the University of Alabama, and then entered the Air Force. My family moved around quite a bit. And then, after my father left the Air Force, we moved to Alabama.

TM: How did your sister get into music?

WP: As I recall, when she was in the fifth or sixth grade, she wanted to take guitar lessons. That lasted for about six months. Later, she decided to try out for the beginner band on trombone, and then eventually she switched to clarinet. She was musically active in high school and college.

TM: Your family is originally from Alabama.

WP: Yes.

TM: In addition to the marching band, what was the musical environment like in Alabama when you were growing up?

WP: Limited. I am from rural Alabama — central Alabama between Montgomery and Birmingham. Jemison, Alabama at the time had a population of about 3000 at the most [2000 census: 2248]. My experiences were limited to the marching band and concert band.

TM: You moved on from cymbals, of course. What was the next thing?

WP: Bass drum! And then snare drum. A little bit of mallets later on. Similar to most high school programs, you learn four or five tunes for the semester, either for the half-time show or for the concert season. The amount of literature we were exposed to was limited. At the same time, we were encouraged to progress on our instruments. Our band director would have us pass off pages from the Rubank Intermediate and Advanced method books for our grades. Every six weeks we had to pass off six pages. By the time you graduated you were almost finished with the advanced Rubank book. Our director was committed to the program and to our musical education. He didn’t have an assistant — We had about 120 people in the band, in a school with roughly about 600 people students. It was a very successful program. It was a fun environment — we worked really hard.

TM: Did you have All-State and district bands?

WP: Our director encouraged us to attend honor bands and compete at solo and ensemble competitions.

TM: You must have had other music activities in high school as well. What were some of those?

WP: I performed with quite a few rock bands while in high school, playing mostly covers and some original music. Usually, my friends and I would get together and try to write our own songs. And even though I didn’t play guitar, keyboards or bass, I would sing what I was thinking at the time, for the transition or the bridge or the chorus, and usually the guitar player would pick it up and work with it. I think those experiences shaped my early interest in composition. While I was still in high school, and later in college, when I was teaching different percussion ensembles in the summer, most of the band directors would ask me to write a solo or two for their group. Most of the percussionists that I’ve known, especially those in high school and college, began composing quite early. They were always writing cadences or percussion features for their marching band.

I was also active in my high school stage band. So, I was exposed to different styles of music — jazz, Latin, rock, Broadway musicals.

TM: Percussion is a characteristically 20th-century ensemble, something that is only developed as part of classical music in the twentieth century, so that by definition almost all the repertoire for percussion is post-WWII. If you are a percussionist you are automatically involved in contemporary music.

WP: I think so, although I don’t write much for percussion. I’ve tried to focus more on writing for winds and strings.

TM: Take us back — did you begin to study music as a major at the university level?

WP: Yes. I attended the University of North Alabama in Florence. Most people know that area of Alabama due to popularity of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and their recordings from the sixties and seventies. UNA had an attractive music program that offered a commercial music degree. At the time, they offered courses in publishing and audio recording — and so I decided to attend UNA and double major in music education and commercial music. I was in the marching band, the jazz band, jazz ensemble, concert band, percussion ensemble, and almost any other ensemble where they needed a percussionist. It was a very busy schedule — plus all my classes. About halfway through the program, I had to make a choice between education and commercial music — I was taking too many classes at a time, 25 hours each semester, so I decided to stick with the music ed route.

Anytime there was a performance opportunity I would try to take advantage of it. It was a good program to be involved in — it taught me how to be a professional. The band director at the time — Ed Jones — was a serious taskmaster. He expected all of his students to act like professionals, during rehearsals and at the gig. We didn’t talk during our rehearsals, and if Dr. Jones was on the podium, nobody spoke, for an hour and a half. We were attentive, and knew where we were at all times in the music. It was intense.

TM: Tell me a little about the music you were playing in these groups.

WP: In the big band we played a lot of swing — Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Harry James charts — a few Latin charts, not a lot of rock, funk, or progressive jazz — it was mostly big band charts. In the jazz combo, we played mostly tunes out of the fake book. In the concert band we would play the standard rep and a lot of marches. Dr. Jones was fond of galop marches — really fast marches in 1 — Carl King marches. For the basketball pep band he would just bring a smaller version of the concert band to the arena, and we would sit up in the stands and play marches to entertain the crowd. We weren’t playing “Mustang Sally” — we would be playing really fast marches. And you had to be on top of things — if there was a break in the action we would immediately start playing. I don’t think the crowd understood or appreciated what we were doing.

While I was in marching band, I remember that every year during the homecoming half-time show we would segue from the opening theme from Jesus Christ Superstar to the theme from the movie Patton. I always thought “that is one strange transition.”

TM: It reminds me a little of Frank Zappa, with the shows or tunes moving abruptly from one feel to another feel.

WP: At the time I couldn’t understand what Jesus Christ Superstar and Patton had to do with each other. But it was fun to watch the crowd’s reaction.

TM: Was there a composition component to your music ed program?

WP: No. I was composing on my own. A few years prior, a friend suggested I pick up a copy of Frank Zappa’s album, Joe’s Garage, and take a listen. I fell in love with the music. I didn’t understand it at the time — I didn’t realize that popular music could be that intricate. It was a rock opera — I was used to standard rock and roll tunes, and here was something with greater structure in a style I was familiar with. I knew about Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Who’s Tommy, but Zappa’s album hit closer to home. After that, while I was at UNA, Zappa’s Yellow Shark album came out, and it just blew me away. I loved it, and I said to myself “I want to do that. I want to compose.” So I started composing on my own.

An important turning point for me was when a visiting saxophonist/composer came in for UNA’s annual jazz band camp. I asked if I could show him some of my music, and so I took it by his hotel room. He looked at these unfinished fragments, and all he said was “finish them.”

After I graduated from UNA, I started applying for graduate school, but I couldn’t decide if I wanted to continue my education in musicology, ethnomusicology, or composition. I applied to three different schools, and LSU accepted me into their composition program. I had a few non-percussion works at the time — a chamber piece for strings, percussion, guitar, and woodwinds, and a piece for solo tuba. Fortunately, Dinos Constantinides and Stephen David Beck took a chance and accepted me into the program, even though I only had three pieces in my “portfolio.”

LSU was quite an awakening — meeting people who had undergraduate degrees in composition, and who took it seriously. It was eye-opening. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Schoenberg, or Webern, or much of Stravinsky’s later work.

TM: When you began to be exposed to this repertoire, what was it that really grabbed you?

WP: Just being exposed to different styles, and figuring out how to say what you want to say with notation. I was exposed to Crumb for the first time at LSU — I couldn’t believe what was on the page, and what I was hearing. I was fabulous, not only in terms of the aural landscape, but in terms of the notation. How did he get what wanted out of the performers? He was so explicit. Then, on the other hand, if you look at Morton Feldman’s scores, he was very general, but getting some amazing sounds out of the performers. Berio, Cage — suddenly there was all these new languages and voices.

An important moment for me was looking at Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies for the first time. The score itself is pretty messy, but what he requires from the performers is amazing. How does Davies get the vocalist to do what he wants him to do? That is important lesson for a young composer. I think all the time, “How can I manipulate the performer to get them to do what I want?” If I write “sing like Robert Plant” in the score, a vocalist probably won’t do it because they are afraid they’ll damage their voice, but if I notate the proper multi-phonics and use general expressive markings, maybe I’ll get the desired “Robert Plant” sound. Notation is communication, manipulation, and interpretation.

My teacher Dinos was fabulous. He would look at your music, and ask you to sit at the piano and play it, if you could, at least the chord changes, and then he would bring in some masterworks, and relate them to your piece, usually Bartok, Schoenberg, or Webern. He exposed me to so many different composers, styles, and techniques. At the beginning, he asked me to write a twelve-tone string quartet. I didn’t know anything about twelve-tone music — what better way to learn than by writing a string quartet?

Most importantly, Dinos might have your piece played. He is the conductor of the Louisiana Sinfonietta, so he has access to some great players. That was the best workshop for a young composer. Additionally, the composition studios at LSU worked with the LSU New Music Ensemble. When I arrived at LSU, the ensemble consisted of mostly composers and a few performers who enjoyed performing contemporary music. So, the instrumentation was ad hoc, it might consist of guitar, three clarinets, percussion, and tuba. And of course, writing for such an ensemble presents its own set of challenges; however, it was a wonderful learning experience.

TM: At what point did you say to yourself, “Now I am a composer!”

WP: I haven’t said it yet. I feel like I am starting over with every piece. I don’t adhere to a system, and I am trying to write more intuitively now. I think I started to realize that I could do this in my first year at LSU, when I premiered my first “real” piece. After every performance I would ask myself “why did that piece work?” or “why didn’t that section sound like I thought it would?” I think I learned more about timing and gesture than anything else. Dinos helped me understand the importance of the grand dramatic gesture, and how to push the envelope. Dinos was also keen on development, and writing effective transitions. I started concentrating on “how do you get from point A to B?” Sometimes a direct juxtaposition can be effective, but most young composers don’t understand how to write a transition. Over time, I was working on transitions so much so that they became more interesting than the A and the B.

TM: Please take us from LSU to where you are today, and perhaps you could talk about early pieces at the beginning of your catalogue.

WP: When I finished my masters at LSU, I started looking for doctoral programs. In the meantime, I applied for and was awarded a doctoral fellowship at LSU. Due to the terms of the fellowship, I was to focus solely on composition. I wasn’t allowed to teach. Fortunately, as I crept closer to finishing my dissertation, I was asked if I would stay on and teach two or three courses electro-acoustic music. Stephen Beck had been asked to direct the Louisiana Center for Arts and Technologies, so he needed two people to teach his classes and his private studio. I took over Dr. Beck’s electro-acoustic classes, and Liduino Pitombeira taught his composition students.

For those four to five years, I started thinking more deeply about my work– I had more time to compose and try new things. I had some breakthroughs in terms of timing and gesture. I started working on a piece for saxophone, percussion, and piano called Pushover. I would write a section and think “How far can I take this? Where are the extremes? How loud and how soft can I make the gestures? I started thinking about generalities, rather than specifics. Prior to this piece, I had been worried about every little note on the page, so much so that I was losing sight of the grander scheme of things. Instead of looking at the overall structure, I was always focused on the minutiae.

TM: There seem to be two different types of composers, those who come from the details outwards, and those who imagine the structure, and then fill in the details. It sounds like you were moving from an organic to a more architectural approach.

WP: That’s a good way to phrase it. Whether one note is right or wrong doesn’t matter in the long run. I continued this thread in my next work for saxophone, Hook, Line and Sinker, which I wrote when I got back to Alabama. At the time, I had just graduated from LSU, and like most young academics, I thought there would be a job waiting for me, but there wasn’t, so I moved back to Alabama. My wonderful and supportive wife told me “You’ll get a job when you get a job.” So I stayed at home and composed all day, and I treated it like a business. I would compose in the morning, answer emails in the afternoon, read scores and listen to music in the later afternoon, and maybe compose a little after my wife went to sleep.

As it pertains to Hook, Line and Sinker, I tried to think about how I could write a specific gesture in such a way, so that I could get a more immediate response, not only musically, but also from the performer. I started thinking about using style and expressive markers to get an emotional response. In one part of the piece, I instruct the clarinetist to distort their sound. Asking an instrumentalist to distort their sound is heresy to begin with, so I marked the passage “Play it antisocial, à la Sex Pistols”. The clarinetist who premiered it is Japanese and I think at the time had no idea who the Sex Pistols were. She went and found a couple of recordings and came back and said, “I understand what you mean now.” I wanted an extreme sound. I also marked the saxophone part “Play like a blend of Shostakovich and Jimi Hendrix”. These sorts of markings are fun to work with. They allow me to experiment with the abrupt juxtaposition and superimposition of dissimilar moods and styles in a very general way. Something aggressive and violent, with something subtle. Something very chromatic and something modal, something rhythmically complex with something more free-form, more fluid.

Hook, Line, and Sinker was a breakthrough piece for me as a composer. It was premiered at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. The university has a very live recital hall. It’s a small space, and the sound bounces off all the wood and brick, which provided more immediacy to the piece. In that type of environment, an aggressive work can keep a listener on the edge of his or her seat. And since I explore the extremes of range and emotion in the work, it can be almost like walking a tightrope for the performer and listener. “Will they hit the note or not?” The piece requires the listener to be an active participant; they have no choice.

TM: Let’s connect that to your electroacoustic music. Some of the transitions in theme and mood seem almost cinematic, with a sardonic kind of humor.

WP: Before attending LSU, my experience with digital technology was limited to say the least. Although I took several recording classes at UNA, the studio was all analog. This was in ‘93, ‘94. I started to use Csound and digital recording technology when I moved to Baton Rouge. Stephen Beck used that program as an introduction to electro-acoustic music. I had an important breakthrough during the course of that first semester; time is a canvas that I am free to paint upon. The overall musical gesture can be any length without having a specific meter imposed upon it. And of course, I could arrange these gestures anywhere in the temporal plane. Usually, before I started a work in the studio, I would sketch a graphic representation of the overall “idea”. Then, I could go back and fill in the texture, the gestures, and timbral contrasts.

I think my first electro-acoustic piece, Let Freedom Ring, was a subconscious response to my induction into the marching band as a cymbal player and playing “The Star Spangled Banner” in 4, rather than in 3… When I began the piece, I knew that I wanted to transform the important motives and phrases in the work. For example, the second cymbal crash breaks in into hundreds of tiny fragments, leading to a softer and isolated soundscape. Also, the work tends to provoke an immediate response from most audiences. Because American audiences are so ingrained in hearing the work as an aural souvenir and musical icon, that whenever they hear the piece transformed and manipulated within a much different context, no matter what the overall social intentions maybe, it tends to put people off. Some of the audio samples were taken from marching band recordings, and others from orchestral recordings, so that I could use the strings when needed, and explore the common timbral relationship in the woodwinds and brass. It’s a piece that is a hybrid between electronic sounds and musique concrete. I’ve tried to incorporate the temporal freedom of my electro-acoustic composition into my instrumental works. Four-four over four bars is not interesting to me — when I listen to a group of improvisers, they play with a more fluid approach. If I want to represent the fluidity of an improvisation, I have to experiment with time and meter. Trying to get someone to sound like they are improvising while they are reading a traditional notation is a difficult thing to do.

TM: Please talk about Sans Titre II [for unaccompanied saxophone]. It’s a long span for a single line, but the progression from A to B to C works very well, and the use of tessitura is very effective.

WP: Prior to Sans Titre II I had written a solo flute piece, Strata I, a serial piece based on the manipulation and development of a single chromatic fragment, C-C#-D. Through the permutation and transposition of that cell fragment, I started to observe how I create other sets from that three-note cell. However, while I was working on Sans Titre II, I was studying the Bach cello suites, and examining his compound melodies. Throughout each movement, the tonal goal remains true; there is always direction. And just by studying those pieces, it made me realize that I could combine my serial experiments with traditional tonal devices, and hopefully create an interesting multi-narrative.

In the first part of the piece, I explore the low and middle ranges of the instrument in such a way as to create a compound narrative. Later, I insert “interruptions” — secondary melodies that interrupt the initial, legato narrative. The primary narrative is interrupted twice by these secondary gestures, but as the work continues the interruption becomes the primary narrative. But it too is interrupted by the faster second part. For the second part, I wanted to provide a metrical contrast to the fluid nature of the first part and second part.

TM: What is coming up next for you?

WP: Fortunately, I always have a few ideas, and when they are not right for the moment, or ready to work, I’ll write the idea on a scrap of paper and put it in a file folder.

For contemporary music, it seems like the next work is always a chamber piece. At the moment, I am working on a piece for percussion ensemble. And the piece after that will be a short movement for flute and piano.

I’ve also been thinking a choral work. In the past, I’ve a hard time finding a text that speaks to me, one that emphasize the universal “we” as opposed to “I.” I’m thinking about setting three or four quatrains of Nostradamus’ prophecies. Something interesting, maybe something that people are familiar with. I haven’t decided if I will set the work in French, use an English translation or combine the two.

Also, I’ve been commissioned to write a short piece for concert band. It will be a new experience for me, so I’m excited about this particular project.

TM: Who will perform the work for flute and piano?

WP: The flute and piano piece will be premiered in April 2010 at Samford University as part of a Birmingham Art Music Alliance concert. The working title is “Ich bin Maroon” — “I am maroon”, which comes from a Frank Zappa skit entitled “Once Upon a Time.”

I also want to write a one-act opera based on the writing of Chuck Palahniuk — the author of Fight Club and Choke — and maybe something based on transgressive fiction of William S. Burroughs. I have always thought an opera exploring that kind of fiction and character development would be interesting. Transgressive writing and dramatic opera seems to fit. Finding the proper text is the difficult thing. And then trying to find someone to mount a production is next to impossible, especially if the work were to be based on Palahniuk’s or Burroughs’ work. Naked Lunch would be a great opera.

TM: What is your greatest concern as a composer?

WP: When I do workshops with composers and musicians, I ask them what their biggest fear is. I tell them that my biggest fear as a composer is rejection. As musicians we can be afraid to take chances because of our fear of rejection. I tell the composers I work with that not every piece is going to work or be accepted by an audience, so we might as well take risks in our art. We don’t create to make a mirror for our society, but rather to be a counterbalance. Art is not about playing it safe, whether you are a painter or an instrumentalist, a composer or a film-maker. We should take those chances. If the piece doesn’t work, you can write another one. If the performance doesn’t go well, play it again. There’s always a second chance. If I hadn’t taken the chance to apply to the LSU, maybe I wouldn’t be a composer. I might be an accountant, and always wish that I were a composer. People have regrets because they didn’t dare to try to do what they love for a living. I’ve been fortunate to do what I love. I get to compose, analyze my favorite works and write about them, and I get to teach. If I hadn’t taken chances, it would not have worked out that way.

TM: You have to be courageous to follow your dream.

WP: My students have dreams, and they may not have supportive people in their life to tell them that they can do these things, but I tell them all the time, “work hard, write a bio, and be ready when opportunity knocks.”

image=http://www.operatoday.com/wprice.png image_description=William Price product=yes product_title=An Interview with William Price product_by=Inteviewed by Tom Moore product_id=Above: William Price
Posted by Gary at 11:17 AM

December 24, 2009

The Maestro Was Miserable

By NORMAN LEBRECHT [WSJ, 23 December 2009]

Most men who invent a profession earn lifetime esteem and a place in history. Hans von Bülow is remembered chiefly by the derision of a genius who destroyed him.

Posted by Gary at 10:53 AM

December 18, 2009

Long wait rewarded with near-perfect production

By Barney Zwartz [The Age, 19 December 2009]

MELBOURNE OPERA lovers could have only one complaint about the Shostakovich masterpiece, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk: that it wasn’t a repeat performance.

Posted by Gary at 11:59 PM

Elektra at the Met

Full-scale power over a huge orchestra is demanded of them, and the parts are often given, like Valkyries or Rhinemaidens, to budding dramatic sopranos. That being understood and the brevity of the parts being acknowledged, still, it is not a good sign when three or four of the maids have louder, more focused, more credibly heroic voices than either Elektra or Chrysothemis. But such was the case at the Met on December 15.

The Elektra was Susan Bullock, who was unable to bring the requisite force to this endurance contest of a part. We must be grateful to any soprano who can simply get through it, but any pressure seemed to push her vibrato wide open, and the whole performance was thin and squally, never vocally overwhelming and uninformed by any vision of Elektra’s personality. Her acting, too, was graceless, which may suit the bedraggled nature of a princess in the mire, but Bullock spent most of the evening staring at the conductor or waving an axe about the stage, and she made little of the dancing, a tricky bit for any Elektra.

Deborah Voigt, in distressing vocal estate, sang Chrysothemis, and never have the two sisters seemed so well-matched, so related: neither of them could bring full force to her music, and they bickered like kittens when the matter under discussion is how they are to murder their mother. Not until the triumphant final scene did Voigt give forth a few of the radiant notes that were once a feature of her Strauss singing. Perhaps it’s just as well the Met shelved the originally scheduled revival of Die Frau ohne Schatten, once a Voigt signature.

ELEKTRA_Palmer_1905.pngFelicity Palmer as Klytemnestra

The appearance of Felicity Palmer as Klytemnestra came as a great relief. Palmer cannot manage hurricane force either, but she had something more: a highly focused conception of the character. Her voice seemed dull, drably colored, as if by the bad dreams and lack of sleep she sings about, and then color crept in as Elektra goaded her with false hopes and conundrums. Gaunt and frail but vigorously flailing her staff, she made a striking figure, terrifying for the example of her fate.

Evgeny Nikitin’s bass-baritone possesses the size and dignity for Orest, but his singing was grainy rather than ominous on this occasion. Wolfgang Schmidt sang an unusually sturdy Aegisth — the role is usually a caricature — and John Easterlin was impressive in the small role of the arrogant servant sent to fetch him.

The tilted Otto Schenk production grows on one with time — its unnerving angles intentionally set the teeth on edge as we meet this most famously dysfunctional of families. I liked David Kneuss’s direction, but I’d like it better if the singers sang to each other now and then, if Elektra didn’t wave her axe like a cheerleader, and if the Overseer did not crack her whip only to have the Serving Maids pay no attention. Surely they would shut up when the whip cracked, if indeed the Overseer were the fearsome creature intended? In which case, the whip cracks should be timed for those few moments in their scene when the maids are about to shut up.

The hero of the night was Fabio Luisi in the pit, a masterful Strauss conductor who spared us nothing of the brutality of this devastating score but at the same time was always careful never to contest the air with his singers, holding the turbulence down so that vocal lines were clear. Underpowered some of them might be, drowned out never. Such courtesy and skill have not always been featured by conductors of Elektra.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ELEKTRA_Bullock_and_Voigt_2121.png image_description=Sandra Bullock as Elektra and Deborah Voigt as Chrysothemis [Photo by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Elektra product_by=Elektra: Susan Bullock; Chrysothemis: Deborah Voigt; Klytemnestra: Felicity Palmer; Orest: Evgeny Nikitin; Aegisth: Wolfgang Schmidt; A Young Servant: John Easterlin; Tutor: Oren Gradus; Five Serving Maids: Kathryn Day, Heidi Melton, Maria Zifchak, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Jennifer Check. Conducted by Fabio Luisi. Metropolitan Opera, performance of December 15. product_id=Above: Sandra Bullock as Elektra and Deborah Voigt as Chrysothemis

All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 2:09 PM

Authenticity online: British Library allows virtual browsing of original Messiah score

By John Terauds [Toronto Star, 18 December 2009]

A facsimile of the original score of Messiah, by George Frideric Handel, has been in print for a while. Now you can flip through Handel’s own finished score — all yellowed pages and ink blotches— on the British Library’s website. It worked beautifully on my computer, using Silverlight.

Posted by Gary at 1:23 PM

Medical Miracle: Opera Singer's Lost Voice Returns

By DR. TIM JOHNSON and THEA TRACHTENBERG [ABC News, 18 December 2009]

For Michael Niemann, singing was like breathing. But when a devastating diagnosis crippled his vocal cords, the 41-year-old former New York City opera singer turned to an experimental treatment.

Posted by Gary at 1:15 PM

Ernani: The Case for Early Verdi at Lyric Opera of Chicago

In its third production of the current season Lyric Opera of Chicago has not only brought together an outstanding roster of soloists to fill the parts, but the company has also mounted in this new production a splendid scenic backdrop and sets reminiscent of sixteenth-century Spain. Renato Palumbo conducted the Lyric Opera Orchestra with an assured sensitivity for this musical cornucopia of bel canto as well as weighty dramatic scenes and ensembles. In the title role Salvatore Licitra displayed both elegant legato and convincing heft in his emotionally driven arias and participatory scenes. His beloved Elvira, sung in this production by Sondra Radvanovsky, remains one of those challenging Verdian female roles, which draw on all reaches of the soprano voice. Ms. Radvanovsky’s command of the role is admirable for her secure approach in a wide range of carefully executed techniques and colors, and also for her sensitivity to communicating through vocal gesture what the character of Elvira senses at given moments. The remaining lead figures, both in pursuit of Elvira, are sung by baritone Boaz Daniel and bass Giacomo Prestia. Mr. Daniel portrays Carlo, King of Spain, who is later during the third act of the opera elected to the status of Holy Roman Emperor, hence giving a historic anchor to the piece. Mr. Prestia sings the role of Elvira’s uncle, Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, a character representing the honor of the old nobility. Silva plans to marry his niece Elvira shortly after the action commences.

In the first scene of Act I, located in the mountains outside the region of Aragon, the followers of Ernani sing of the importance of wine and freedom in this life. From the very start the Lyric Opera Chorus, directed by Donald Nally, demonstrated a crisp urgency in its support of the action and the title character’s imminent plans. In his aria “Come rugiada al cespite” [“As falling dew upon the flower”] Enrnai details the expected fate of Elvira and his own lamentable future without her presence. Ernani plans with the support of his men to abduct his beloved before Silva can marry her. Licitra showed here notably in his first extended solo piece a careful balance of forte notes used to express passion traced with a legato decorated gracefully to carry the import of his plan. In his cabaletta “O tu que l’alma adora” [“O, you whom my soul adores”] one sensed in Licitra’s performance the conviction that Ernani’s love for Elvira would support at least the intentions of the couple. As a mirror to this first scene the opening of the second depicts Elvira surrounded by a female chorus, here separated from Ernani and awaiting her fate in Silva’s palace. The well-known cavatina “Ernani involami” [“Ernani, take me away”] followed by the cabaletta “Tutto sprezzo” [“ All these I detest”] were together performed by Ms. Radvanovsky with an elegant and committed line as well as a matchless instinct for bel canto technique. Her vocal decorations on “Vola, o tempo” [“Fly, o time”] in this aria were especially telling as they recalled the earlier melismas and textual significance of the piece “Involami.” The extended final note in this cabaletta illustrates the directorial emphasis for combining music and staging in this production. As Radvanovsky holds this last pitch with defiant beauty, she strides past the assembled attendants showing disdain for her surroundings and leaving the chamber with the lyrical wish to be transported even further away.

Ernani_Chicago_01.pngBoaz Daniel (Carlo), Sondra Radvanovsky (Elvira) and Salvatore Licitra (Ernani)

In the next scene of Act I Carlo enters and desires to speak with Elvira in order to press his suit further to win her affections. In the role of King Carlo, Boaz Daniel has found an ideal vehicle for his lyrical baritone voice, at times showing dramatic force commensurate with the dignity of position and at other moments a melodic line suggesting the sincerest devotion of love or duty. In his recitative before the duet with Elvira, Carlo laments his unrequited emotions while clinging to the possibility that she will still relent. Mr. Daniel’s declamation of rising notes on the word “ancora” [“yet”] defined a hope that would propel his actions through the remainder of this and the following act. His ensuing duet with Ms. Radvanovsky showcased both performers in a magnificently sung variety of emotions ranging from the noblewoman’s pride to the demands of the yearning king as melodic suitor. The sudden appearance of Ernani, prepared to abduct his beloved, sets off a trio together with Carlo and Elvira, only to be broken by the equally sudden entrance of Silva. Verdi’s symmetrical structure of aria or set piece followed by ensemble and further complication was staged with appropriately tasteful sets showing the influence of Renaissance art work. This symmetry was then complemented by the final principal, Giacomo Prestia, in the bass role of Silva. He is outraged by the violation of his family’s honor when Ernani and Carlo are found in the company of Elvira. In his moving aria and cabaletta, beginning with the words “Infelice, e tuo credevi” [“O unhappy, and you whom I believed”] Prestia combined the heroic gesture of noble dignity with the menacing tone of securely projected basso notes, both leaving a mark of individuality on the character. Once Carlo’s identity is recognized Silva cannot deny his hospitality. Ernani is provided a means of escape as the act ends.

The start of the second act truly demonstrates the coup of staging at memorable points in this production. Elvira stands with her back to the audience as the curtain rises. The chandeliers begin to brighten as guest now arrive for Elvira’s wedding to Silva. Interiors of the hall as well as the costumes evoke the grandeur of sixteenth-century Spain. When Radvanovsky turns to face the audience, she holds the dagger and communicates through anguished facial expression her plan to stab herself at the altar during the ceremony of marriage. Ernani’s entrance, in the guise of a pilgrim, complicates the wedding, just as do Carlo’s subsequent arrival and demands for justice later in the same act. When Ernani learns of the ceremony, he reveals his identity and offers his life. Only Elvira’s protestations of her planned suicide calm Ernani to the point of a love duet. Here the lyrical yearning so vividly expressed by Licitra and Radvanovsky is interrupted, as before, first when Silva discovers the couple and second when King Carlo arrives at Silva’s palace. Sine Ernani is hidden under the protection of Silva, Carlo demands that the young man be surrendered or the old noble will forfeit his life. The entrance of Elvira provides Carlo with a means of force. As he now abducts the heroine, one of the vocal highlights of this act is Daniel’s performance of the aria “Vien meco sol, di rose” [“Come with me, I shall strew your path with roses”]. Daniel projects the variable nature of the king: after his test of wills and power expressed against Silva, the ravishing sweetness communicated by Daniel in Carlo’s song to Elvira as he leads her away remains a convincing display of his love. After settling their differences, Ernani and Silva now both join in a conspiracy against the King in the hopes of also rescuing Elvira. Ernani offers to forfeit his life at the sound of a horn, the choice and time being left to the discretion of Silva.

Ernani_Chicago_03.pngScene from Ernani

Act III and IV of Ernani illustrate the rising power of the King and his beneficent forgiveness and generosity. At the same time, the offer made by Ernani to Silva is ironically called due; the happiness that the hero seems about to enjoy with Elvira is shattered by his commitment to fulfill his word of honor. In Act III at the tomb of Charlemagne in Aix, Carlo remains hidden to await both the conspirators and the result of the election. When cannon shots announce that he has indeed been chosen as Holy Roman Emperor Carlo steps forward to confront his detractors. In the spirit of Charlemagne, Carlo announces forgiveness for the conspirators and relinquishes Elvira to Ernani in marriage. In the great ensemble ending the act, “O sommo Carlo” [“I too am Carlo”] the baritone — here standing on the tomb of his predecessor — leads the remaining soloists and chorus in an impressive lyrical display suggesting a positive turn to the future for all involved. As Carlo, Daniel began the ensemble with a carefully intoned introduction, his voice rising to noble heights of melodic strength as he led the others to think of the example of the past. Only Silva still vents his rage and need for vengeance at the close of the scene. The tragedy of this vengeance interrupts the renewed period of felicity, with which the brief final act opens. As Ernani and Elvira celebrate their wedding, the calls of the horn remind Ernani of the vow that he has sworn. Silva’s arrival leaves him no choice but to take his own life with honor, a decision through which the protagonists must confront the deeds, oaths, and responsibilities of their past. The principal singers, chorus, and orchestra in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ernani have created a production that argues strongly for such continued, fine revivals of Verdi’s 1844 masterpiece.

Salvatore Calomino

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ernani_Chicago_02.png image_description=Salvatore Licitra (Ernani) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Elvira) [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Ernani product_by=Ernani: Salvatore Licitra; Elvira: Sondra Radvanovsky; Carlo: Boaz Daniel; Silva: Giacomo Prestia; Giovanna: Kathryn Leemhuis; Riccardo: René Barbera; Jago: Paul Corona. Conductor: Renato Palumbo. Director: José María Condemi. Designer: Scott Marr. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler. Chorus Master: Donald Nally. Wig and Makeup Designer: Richard Jarvie. product_id=Above: Salvatore Licitra (Ernani) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Elvira)

All photos by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Posted by Gary at 12:10 PM

Sergei Leiferkus at Wigmore Hall

for the more intimate setting of the Wigmore Hall, the veteran Russian baritone, Sergei Leiferkus, offered an intriguing programme of songs from his compatriot, Modest Musorgsky, coupled with Robert Schumann’s ecstatic, joyful cycle, Leiderkreis.

The programme booklet remarked the ‘considerable stylistic gulf’ between these two composers, and while it proposed a rationale behind this unusual pairing (that is, the influence on Russian composers of Musorgsky’s time of German lieder, in terms of how a vocal line and accompaniment ‘could be tailored to the expressive allusions of the text’), it was a gulf that Leiferkus was not entirely convincing in bridging.

Certainly, this was an imposing, confident performance from both baritone and pianist. Leiferkus’ voice is a powerful instrument and from the start it thundered to the far reaches of the hall. Yet, herein lay the problem: while an appropriate depth of passion and lyric ecstasy were evident in songs such as ‘In der Fremde’ and ‘Im Walde’, the performers did not grasp the opportunity to convey the contrasting moments of tenderness and yearning introspection which the texts surely offer.

That is not to suggest that there was no variety of colour or mood. Leiferkus’ diction was crisp and clear, and at times he showed sensitivity to textual details: the slow, reflective pace of ‘Mondnacht’ was further enhanced by the deep resonance of his profound bass in the opening lines, ‘It was as though Heaven/had softly kissed the Earth’; and the pointing of particular words — ‘Ein altes, schönes Lied […] Und zu dir eilig zieht’ - at the conclusion of ‘Intermezzo’ was touching and affective. Here, Skigin was a faultless partner, deftly complementing significant melodic gestures, flexible in rhythm, employing a wide range of dynamics, drawing out the contrasting resonances of major and minor keys. Skigin, Leiferkus’ frequent and long-term accompanist, shared the singer’s vision of these songs and matched his commanding presence, the accompaniment injecting much energy and turbulence, as in ‘Schöne Fremde’ where the ‘glittering stars gaze down on me,/fierily and full of love’.

However, the performers did not satisfactorily convey the moments of hushed awe and sublime stillness which complement the extravagant joy which blossoms through the sequence. There is a gradual movement from winter darkness to spring awakening, but there was little sense of nature’s delicate, inspiring presence. In particular, ‘Wehmut’, where ‘Nightingales, when spring/breezes play outside, sing/their song of longing …’, suffered from an overly assertive, full tone. Overall, Leiferkus’ rather stern sound seemed more suitable for the distinguished majesty of His Excellency over the road at Covent Garden than for the yearning romantic dreamer of Eichendorff’s tender verse. There were also some occasional tuning problems: chromatic indefinition marred the magical close of ‘Mondnacht’, while the octave unisons of ‘Auf einer Burg’ suffered from occasional lapses of intonation.

The second half of the concert was a wholly different musical and dramatic experience. Leiferkus found in Musorgsky’s songs a greater combination of musical colours, and here his voice, not ‘beautiful’ in a conventional sense, was truly expressive of the sentiments of the text, both tragic and comic. The latter vein was remarkably captured in ‘The peep-show’: Leiferkus articulated every syllable admirably, and the intensity of his dramatic characterization was enhanced by his ability to span a wide dynamic range in the space of a few bars. Here gestures which had seemed unsubtle and exaggerated in Schumann’s lieder became appropriately biting and incisive. The miniature dramas of ‘The Songs and Dances of Death’ were eloquent and deeply moving. The wonderfully dark tone of Leiferkus’ baritone conveyed a musical depth which perfectly matched a text which speaks of the figure of ‘light, merciful’ Death, who ‘sings his serenade’ to the mother cradling her sick child, to the drunken peasant stumbling in the snow-strewn field at night, to slaughtered troops who are commanded to parade before the triumphant ‘Field Marshal’. Skigin was again a responsive partner in these songs.

So, a rather mixed evening. I will certainly be exploring Leiderkus’ four-volume recording set of Musorgsky songs, but on the whole I prefer my Schumann a little less statuesque.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Leiferkus.png image_description=Sergei Leiferkus [Photo: Askonas Holt] product=yes product_title=Schumann: Liederkreis (Op.39)
Musorgsky: The peep-show; Songs and Dances of Death; The Seminarist; Mefistopheles’ Song. product_by=Sergei Leiferkus, baritone; Semyon Skigin, piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Tuesday 15 December 2009. product_id=Above: Sergei Leiferkus [Photo: Askonas Holt]
Posted by Gary at 11:49 AM

Frankfurt’s ‘Medium’ Rarities

Don’t like it? Wait five minutes and it will change.

There is a good deal to admire in this double bill, not least of which is the rare opportunity to enjoy two seldom-performed pieces mounted by such a reputable company. However, too often during the evening, I found myself becoming engaged by a tender moment, or beginning to relish a powerful musical development…only to be interrupted by a crass directorial “improvement.”

There are really two separate productions going on here (See: “wait five minutes,” above). One is the relatively straight-forward and conventional telling of the musical drama in rather traditional and genuinely pleasing theatrical staging. Then there is a concurrent, wholly invented television studio experience that is part reality show. Part game show, part National Enquirer, and all colossally ineffective.

Not that I disapprove of the concept outright. Frankfurt Opera itself used this device to brilliant effect with its televangelical Rape of Lucretia two seasons past. What I object to is that director Sandra Leupold took a cheap, easy way out of having to deal with the (admittedly naïve) pleasures to be mined from the two operas at hand.

Hmmmm, how to make these curiosities palatable to today’s audiences? Hmmmm…I know, let’s tart them up with game show “Moderators”! The glitzily-attired actors Ingrid El Sigai and Marcus Hosch do what they can with these irrelevant creatures, but seemed quite self-conscious (maybe pre-occupied with the pay check they would at least be getting…)

The three blue-sequin-gowned Vanna White’s seemed to have wandered in from another show, waiting in vain for a vowel to be bought or a letter to be turned. But worst of all was the inconsiderate and considerable obstruction by the “cameramen” and “stage managers” who would interpose themselves between the soloists and the audience. No fooling I spent one touching soprano aria relegated to looking at a burly extra’s butt as he “televised” her performance to a giant on-stage screen…that…again, no kidding…had a sound delay! Looked like a badly dubbed movie on German TV.

Where the hell to look then? The viola section? The surtitles? The exit????

Heike Scheele’s set and costume design was at its worst in the utilitarian television studio which comprised the encompassing space for the shows. However, within the confines of the raised circle on which the actual operas were performed, there was much that was pleasantly colorful, representational, and traditional.

I especially found Mr. Scheele’s Chinese costumes for the Leoni to be character-specific and beautifully rendered; the rustic Puccini clothing was also quite delightful, although perhaps the tutu’d chorus nod to Giselle was just too over the top. I also appreciated the clever and appropriate scenic insets that he devised for both pieces,and the competent lighting from Joachim Klein. The show-within-the show, that is to say the actual operas, was often very agreeable.

The credit for that has to begin with the fine idiomatic playing elicited from the pit by conductor Stefan Solyom. He never once flagged in presenting these two (let’s be honest) weaker compositions with commitment and authority. He seemed to wring every bit of musical excellence he could from his orchestra, and kept the evening buoyant and forward-moving. He also ably partnered his hard-working singers. Matthias Koehler’s chorus, and Michael Clark’s children’s chorus were likewise also very well-prepared, but suffered the fate of being clumsily and busily deployed in this mess of a concept.

oracolo_HQ_18.pngMarcus Hosch (Moderator), Peter Sidhom (Cim-Fen), Ingrid El Sigai (Moderatorin), Katharina Magiera (Hua-Quî), Tobias Jantsch (Hu-Cî) and Chor, Kinderchor and Statisterie der Oper Frankfurt in background

While L’oracolo may have its confusing pseudo-Asian dramaturgy, any minor musical longeurs were glossed over with committed performances. As Cim-Fen (opium den owner) Peter Sidhorn may not have offered the most suave singing, but compensated with great presence, the same that could be said of his interpretation of Guglielmo (Le Villi). Ashley Holland’s mellifluous voice was arguably the finest performance in Chinatown, as the learned doctor Uin-Sci. Franz Mayer put his soft-grained, affecting instrument to good use as the rich tradesman Hu-Tsin and Katharina Magiera made the most of her brief moment as Hua-Qui revealing a gorgeous, creamy mezzo.

One of the reasons for this mounting had to be to showcase local favorites, Annalisa Raspagliosi and Carlo Ventre, both of whom were cast in both operas.

Ms. Raspagliosi has already had a big career with big credentials, not least of which was a happy association with the legendary Pavarotti. Here she is undertaking Ah-Joe and more notably Anna in Le Villi. The latter suits her gifts more than the former. At this point in her development, she reminds me of the great Renata Scotto for Anna also commands an unerring sense of projecting the text, effortlessly embodies the character at hand, and seems incapable of a musical false move.

villi_HQ_06.pngAnnalisa Raspagliosi (Anna) and Carlo Ventre (Roberto)

That said, like Renata of yore, she also is beginning to sound a bit like a supremely gifted lyric soprano who has ventured a bit too far into heavier territory (Tosca, anyone?). Her high notes still float, but not without some discernible effort. Her sense of line still commands, but not without a bit of gear-shifting here and there. And the vibrato has gotten a bit more, shall we say, generous? Still, she offers an assured assumption of these two heroines, is lovely as lovely can be, and her Frankfurt public adore her. And why shouldn’t they? In an era of pretenders to the throne, her singing is still a connection with Old World Glories.

Before the Puccini, tenor Carlo Ventre was announced as indisposed, something I had suspected during the Leoni where his vocalizing as San-Lui seemed a bit cautious with meslimas a bit labored. Once our indulgence was requested so he could continue as the second opera’s Roberto (and who the hell else knows the role?), Mr. Ventre actually sang with more assurance, and even with real abandon. He is a fine singer with a burnished tone, and if a few phrases were husbanded carefully and a few notes grew rough-edged, he not only gave a pleasurable account of his two assignments, but also saved the night!

Like with the German weather then, while I had a great time discovering these two operas in staged versions for the first time, and while I enjoyed so many of the components, I found myself waiting, nay wishing for a change for sunnier horizons. Were the staging to be re-imagined losing the television concept entirely, I can predict the remaining elements would make a far superior evening at the opera.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/oracoloHQ07.png image_description=Ashley Holland (Uin-Scî; standing) und Peter Sidhom (Cim-Fen; sitting), in background Marcus Hosch (Moderator) as well as Chor, Kinderchor and Statisterie der Oper Frankfurt [Photo by Wolfgang Runkel courtesy of Oper Frankfurt]

product=yes producttitle=Franco Leoni: L’Oracolo; Giacomo Puccini: Le Villi productby=L’Oracolo — Cim-Fen, Inhaber einer Opiumhöhle: Peter Sidhom / Bastiaan Everink; Uin-Sci, ein gelehrter Arzt: Ashley Holland; Hu-Tsin, ein reicher Kaufmann: Franz Mayer; San-Lui, Uin-Scis Sohn; Carlo Ventre: Ah-Joe, Nichte Hu-Tsins; Annalisa Raspagliosi / Barbara Zechmeister; Hua-Qui, Kindermädchen: Katharina Magiera.

Le Villi — Guglielmo Wulf: Peter Sidhom / Bastiaan Everink; Anna, seine Tochter: Annalisa Raspagliosi / Barbara Zechmeister; Roberto: Carlo Ventrez; Moderatoren: Ingrid El Sigai and Marcus Hosch. Chor und Kinderchor der Oper Frankfurt. Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester. product_id=Above: Ashley Holland (Uin-Scî; standing) und Peter Sidhom (Cim-Fen; sitting), in background Marcus Hosch (Moderator) as well as Chor, Kinderchor and Statisterie der Oper Frankfurt

All photos by Wolfgang Runkel courtesy of Oper Frankfurt

Posted by james_s at 9:21 AM

Amsterdam: Minnie, Get Your Gun

So, let’s begin with the wholly idiomatic and beautifully judged conducting from Carlo Rizzi, shall we? From the first downbeat Maestro Rizzi savored every varied detail of Puccini’s masterful orchestration. He not only reveled in its lush lyrical moments but also put real spunk into the intentioned rambunctiousness and occasional silliness. The house is privileged to have several “resident” orchestras, and on this occasion the estimable Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra played with fire (as it were), sumptuous beauty (when called for) and a dynamic color palette.

Chorus Master Martin Wright coached his lusty-voiced, silver-throated boys to a fare-thee-well, or rather a ‘doo-dah-doo-dah-day.’ The chorus also contributed some wonderfully sensitive, mellow ensemble vocals, especially in the score’s closing moments. And what an exuberant and frequently giddy score it is. (I always forget that Lloyd Weber stole…I mean “borrowed” that swelling lyrical phrase for the climatic section of “Music of the Night.”)

The entire cast seemed to be having the time of their lives. First and foremost, the sublime Eva-Maria Westbroek could “own” the part of Minnie if she so desired. She has a thorough understanding of the arc of the role, and after her gun-slinging entrance, comfortably settles into Act One as a socially naïve love object. Her phrasing and delivery were beautifully modulated to suggest insecurity and uncertainty as her attraction to Johnson progresses. However, her revulsion for Rance nevertheless had all the required steeliness without caricatured meanness, a starchy resolve that she broadened in Act II.

As her feelings for Johnson became more and more pronounced, the Dutch diva plumbed deep emotional reserves, offering some beautiful warm, womanly singing as she surrendered to her attraction. As her desperation to save her lover escalated, Ms. Westbroek unleashed molten phrases above the staff that glanced through the house like laser beams. Her assured return in Act III found her transformed by the ordeal, resolved to win over the minds of the assembled on-stage forces and fully prepared to embrace her role as Dea Ex Machina/heroine - of the plot as well as the heart.

Her last lengthy “appeal” to her beloved boys was as heart-rendingly acted as it was impeccably vocalized. Eva-Maria may not have the final Italianate sheen of a Tebaldi on the very top, but she has the style down pat to include a commendable use of portamento. She is in every sense poised to be the leading exponent of this role today. Let’s call her a Minnie-miracle.

Since last I heard Zoran Todorovich, his meaty tenor has gotten bigger and more imposing. He not only cut a good figure as Johnson, but he also provided some really fine acting in the bargain. His way caressing a Puccinian phrase was masterful, witness his heart-stopping, sotto voce plea to Minnie for “solo un bacio…” (so persuasive that there seemed to be several willing takers seated around me…)

Mr. Todorovich could also really pour on the steam, and he was a very considerate collaborator for his soprano with whom he had substantial chemistry. The trade-off in having put some weight and fullness into his technique is that the (always secure) uppermost top became a bit broad and straight-toned. Small matter, our tenor gifted us with top notch singing all night and contributed a memorable version of his last arioso.

As the Sheriff-We-Love-To-Hate, Lucio Gallo delivered a winning hand with his assured Jack Rance. His baritone is not exceptionally large (not Milnes-ian, say) but it is very well-focused and cleanly produced, creating the aural result that it is quite imposing indeed. He rode the orchestra with ease and offered a well-rounded, smoldering characterization rather than a cartoonish cad.

_3mb3524.pngLucio Gallo (Jack Rance), Zoran Todorovich (Dick Johnson), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Minnie)

The featured male principals were cast from strength, with Roman Sadnik’s Nick a real stand out. Andre Morsch contributed a nice moment with Jake Wallace’s solo, and Tijl Faveyts made the most of his stage time as Billy Jackrabbit. Ellen Rabiner is without a doubt the most petite Wowkle I have ever seen, but her contralto was anything but — it rang out in the Muziektheater with polished presence. Patrick Schramm’s homesick Larkens was sweetly touching. The entire ensemble acquitted themselves with honor.

Set Designer Raimund Bauer devised tremendously effective playing environments. Act One’s Saloon would not have been out of place as the Guys and Dolls crap game sewer, save for the addition of slot machines and a Wells Fargo Bank safe down center. Judging from program book “research” photos, the look was meant to approximate a DC Metro platform, but for a large rectangle cut out to reveal a Wall Street-like skyscraper projection above (the excellent video work was devised by Jonas Gerberding). Director Nikolaus Lehnhoff and his team used the underlying themes of greed and the power of money to create a staging that took the piss out of American obsession with wealth, guns, cars, status, sex, and Hollywood celebrity.

While it is hardly “news” for European productions to satirize the US, surely Fanciulla is the fairest of fair game since it already parodies so much of the stereo-typical American western life of legend. Metro station be damned, with the saloon’s trippy pink and blue fluorescent-lit bar, and the miners in Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s hip Western leather wear, it could have as easily summoned up Happy Hour at the Mineshaft!

This was an endlessly entertaining and eye-filling production. The stylized gesticulating and frozen poses of the gambling were visually arresting, with total involvement from the large male cast. Jake’s solo offered a wonderful interpretive goof, having him clad in a white outfit with white guitar, jacket fringe rippling, looking for all the world like an apparition of The Singing Cowboy (well, sort of Liberace meets Gene Autry) atop the saloon entrance as the cityscape changed to a stylized bucolic scene that scrolled lazily behind him. It was here that Minnie later made her very effective first (star) entrance in red leather overcoat, black cowboy hat, and relentlessly smoking gun, before she strode to stage level down a staircase that seemed to appear from nowhere.

dsc_1102.pngEva-Maria Westbroek (Minnie)

Act II’s curtain opened to reveal a Hollywood-style luxury dressing trailer of the kind-that-never-was except in fantasy. All pink-tufted walls, and cheekily accessorized (Disney’s Pocohantas was playing on the kitchen counter TV), this was a brilliant re-invention of the usual log cabin affair. A pink teddy bear on the bed provided an amusing moment when Johnson reacted to having absent-mindedly picked it up. The hiding place for the wounded outlaw was atop the whole shebang, accessed by a telescoping ladder than Minnie yanked down to good comic effect. Later, when Rance did the same with brutish malintent, it was a chilling, truly disturbing moment.

There was awesome attention to detail. Two large deer lawn ornaments graced the snowy yard and as the lights dimmed during the romantic moments, their eyes lit up and glowed a warm orange. An American flag was frozen in flight, unfurled on the flag-pole, and a lighted statue of the Virgin Mary was in the window. Once revealed, the faltering Johnson collapsed and fainted on the bed. Rance, having lost at cards, is further humiliated by having to pry and pull his coat out from where he had left it, now pinned under the unconscious Johnson. Dynamite stuff. Telling dramatic moments. Flat out superbly inventive direction from a supremely gifted director.

Act III starts with a reveal of an automobile graveyard, an enormous sculptured pile of realistic cars, prompting spontaneous audience applause. As cast members crawled out of cars, it was like a stoned, leather, C/W version of the junkyard scene in Cats, except with good music. The applause meter went off again a bit later when the whole damn thing turned to reveal Minnie as a Jean Harlow-like movie star in dazzling sequined gown atop a Busby Berkley staircase. When the MGM logo ultimately lit up behind her (yes, the lion roared at the very end) the send-up (and our joy) was near complete. Perhaps the final moments risked gilding an already golden lily. For the front scrim flew in and the miners grasped the air to collect falling (projected) paper money, with the Love Couple posed wedding-cake-like atop the staircase. Then a giant twenty dollar bill image grew larger and larger and finally obscured it all while Rance pointed his pistol at us, guarding the safe as the lights dimmed. Gilding? Perhaps. Effective? You betcha.

The redoubtable Duane Schuler’s lighting was of the highest caliber throughout. Witness the atmospheric isolated spot at the close of One on a contemplative Minnie, an image floating dreamily among the twilight of the gaming machines. And the moody shadows cast in the trailer. And the starlight poking through the wintry sky. And and and…fine work as usual, Mr. Schuler.

There are those who are bothered if every line of text is not enacted with absolute faithfulness, or treated with utmost literalism. Those are the same dreary tut-tutters who still expect to see a three hundred pound soprano ride “Grane” onto the pyre. Get over it! Lighten up! Let’er snap!

For those with a taste for an inventive, wholly successful, personalized, humor-infused interpretation that still honestly represents Puccini’s creative achievement and embraces his blatant sentimentality, then hurry at top speed to Amsterdam for their La Fanciulla del West is a shining model of its kind.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/MinnieDNO.png imagedescription=Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie [Photo by Clärchen & Matthias Baus courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Giacomo Puccini: La fanciulla del West productby=Minnie: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Jack Rance: Lucio Gallo; Dick Johnson: Zoran Todorovich; Nick: Roman Sadnik; Ashby: Diogenes Randes; Sonora: Stephen Gadd; Trin: Jean-Léon Klostermann; Sid: Leo Geers; Bello: Peter Arink; Harry: Pascal Pittie; Joe: Ruud Fiselier; Happy: Harry Teeuwen; Larkens: Patrick Schramm; Billy Jackrabbit: Tijl Faveyts; Wowkle: Ellen Rabiner; Jake Wallace: André Morsch; José Castro: Roger Smeets; Un postiglione: Erik Slik. Musical Director: Carlo Rizzi. Director: Nikolaus Lehnhoff. Set Design: Raimund Bauer. Costume Design: Andrea Schmidt-Futterer. Lighting Design: Duane Schuler. Video: Jonas Gerberding. Movement: Denni Sayers. Dramaturgy: Klaus Bertisch. Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest. Koor van De Nederlandse Opera. product_id=Above: Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie

All photos by Clärchen & Matthias Baus courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera.

Posted by james_s at 9:18 AM

Pénélope in Manhattan

The standard operatic repertory today is not the standard repertory of fifty years ago — when such now popular works as Idomeneo, Maria Stuarda, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Semiramide, Katya Kabanova and Les Troyens were obscure or unknown, and Handel, Cavalli and Monteverdi languished in scholarly footnotes. Today, therefore, when so carefully composed a work as Fauré’s Pénélope has failed to find an audience, one is apt to wonder why and whether it is another candidate to join the canon.

Fauré was almost new to the opera game when, at sixty-two, he was finally attracted to a libretto, and it took him six summers (he was busy at the Conservatoire most of the year) to complete the piece. My conclusion, however, after attending the New York premiere of the work at the Manhattan School of Music, a performance by an orchestra of remarkable professionalism, sung by attractive young voices, is that the composer did not possess a gift for the theatrical among his many great talents. There is much beauty here, especially in the orchestration, but very little excitement.

It is interesting to contrast Pénélope (of 1913) with its near contemporary, Vincent d’Indy’s Fervaal, a work of 1897, also brought to Paris in 1913, and introduced to New York last October. Like Fauré, d’Indy was an academician under Wagnerian shadow in his choice of ancient legend, his use of leitmotiv and his rejection of closed forms within the grand arc of a scene. But d’Indy’s impossible epic contains no personalities — the leading characters declaim at each other, but in his musical setting, have no humanity. We never know who these people are, prolix though they be; the music never makes them individual. On the other hand, the burly chorales, the “Druidic” ceremonies, the tone poems that set the various scenes contain thrilling music of high quality.

Fauré’s Pénélope clearly sets up its personalities, both the leading figures, faithful, anguished Pénélope and the disguised, yearning Ulisse, and minor figures are individuated, often entertainingly — but very little of the music packs a punch. We are never brought to the edge of our seats, much less inclined to jump out of them. Not only does Fauré reject closed forms (arias, duets), he also rejects ensemble — his characters never indicate their relationships or inner thoughts by singing together. True, Wagner denounced the excesses of such things, praising the “drama” of individual speech, but, being Wagner, he ignored his own injunctions as soon as a duet or a quintet seemed to be required. Fauré never notices when the drama might call for such things — he is no showman. From situation to situation in Pénélope, all is dignity and refinement — the thing plods, though beautifully. This is not a work of stagecraft, of variety, and it will not follow Les Troyens, for example, a work packed with vivid character and incident, into popular favor.

What we have here, then, in Pénélope, is a stately piece on an ancient, stately story. The orchestration is exquisite, and the Manhattan School of Music orchestra, which has sometimes offered dodgy renditions of complex scores, played this one lovingly, with impressive polish and attention to detail under Laurent Pillot, who plainly loves this score. The vocal lines, too, are well placed — Fauré could express deep emotion without straining the voice to extremes, a skill lacking in many composers who dabbled in opera. But the music rarely becomes fast or loud or agitated, even when one of the characters is murdering several of the others. I found myself thinking — and not only because of Fauré’s way of wandering from theme to theme, doubling back and twining them again — of Act III of Tristan und Isolde. But even that tone poem to a bedridden invalid includes a couple of climaxes to vary the pace.

The title role of Pénélope was taken by Lori Guilbeau. From the buzz around me opening night, I gather she is much prized at the school as their budding dramatic soprano. She has a pretty, sizable voice, easy in its production though immature at fortissimo. Her soft singing was beautiful, her diction clear, and though her figure is robust, she is a handsome woman with a dignified stage presence — opera producers are no longer tolerant of singers who cannot move, and Guilbeau gives evidence that the Manhattan School takes such things seriously when launching careers. Too, Pénélope is just the sort of music she should be singing at this stage — her mid twenties. She should not sing heavy dramatic parts for another decade, while her body and her control over it both mature, but she was joyously received in Pénélope.

Tenor Cooper Nolan sang Ulisse with beautiful phrasing and without strain. Frankly, his situation could have used some strain now and then, but the fault there was Fauré’s. Robert E. Mellon made a striking impression as the gruff shepherd Eumée — wasn’t he a swineherd in Homer? Several of Pénélope’s obnoxious suitors sang quite well, but it was difficult to tell them apart.

Martin T. Lopez’s set was cleverly compartmentalized, with different levels and segmented rooms so that the story could move without pause and without the need to change scenes. Attractive scrims covered areas that could be lit to reveal iconic or choral personages. Pénélope sang much of her part through the warp of a loom at which she was supposedly weaving the famous tapestry she unraveled each night, Ulisse sang his role through a mask (being in disguise until the climax). My only real quibble with Lawrence Edelson’s admirably simple and clear staging concerned the bow — the suitors are supposed to find it impossible to string the bow, which Ulisse does do, thereupon assaulting them with arrows. Is no one at Manhattan School aware of what stringing a bow means? It was already strung, giving the suitors nothing to do but sing at it, and there were no arrows at all.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Penelope-Odyssey.png image_description=Penelope - Statue in the Vatican, Rome - Project Gutenberg eText 13725 [Source: Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=Gabriel Fauré: Pénélope product_by=Pénélope: Lori Guilbeau; Eryclée: Victoria Vargas; Ulisse: Cooper Nolan; Eumée: Robert E. Mellon. Conducted by Laurent Pillot. Manhattan School of Music, performance of December 9. product_id=
Posted by Gary at 9:04 AM

December 17, 2009

An Interview with John Fitz Rogers

His work is diverse and widely appreciated, with commissions from orchestras, chamber ensembles, and choruses. He studied composition at Oberlin, Yale, and Cornell. We spoke via Skype on November 25, 2009.

TM: Where did you grow up? What was your exposure to music as a child? Did you have uncles that played the violin or wrote Broadway tunes?

JFR: I grew up in central Wisconsin. Like a lot of middle class families, we had a piano in the house, and my sisters took piano lessons when I was small, so I was exposed to music at a fairly young age. My father was a graphic artist and designer, and was interested in visual art, so there was an interest at our house in the arts in general. At a very young age I was curious about the piano and started messing around, and started playing hymn tunes that I had heard in church. I would come home and plunk them out on the piano. My parents were surprised at that, and thought “Let’s sign the kid up for piano lessons.” I started lessons around age four or five.

TM: What church did you go to?

JFR: It was a Lutheran church and fairly small. At one point, my family and I attended an evening Lenten service when I was a child. The organist played the old hymn Abide With Me. I remember it was a magical experience where they then turned out all the lights and sung the hymn in unison by candlelight. I came home that night and played the tune as best I could on the piano. Right before I graduated from college, my father, who had created his own style of calligraphy, presented me with a plaque with the first three verses of the hymn, a beautiful way of recalling my musical beginning.

TM: Where did the family come from? Were they originally from Wisconsin?

JFR: My father was originally from Texas. Our roots go way back—my sisters have done a lot of genealogical research on the Rogers family, and traced the family back to England. My mother is of German ancestry. We don’t know that much about her side of the family, but my grandfather on my mother’s side homesteaded in Canada for a while and lived in the Dakotas around the time they became states. My parents met during WWII, in the Navy.

TM: What was your hometown like?

JFR: I grew up in Stevens Point—it’s a small town, but it has a university. I studied with a very kind and giving piano teacher when I was small. She was a terrific teacher for young students. Later, when I was in high school, I started studying with a professor from the university. About that same time I started creating my own music as well, and expressed an interest in learning how to compose. My parents were very supportive of this, and not only helped find a piano teacher at the university who was willing to take on a high school student, but also a composition professor. I guess I was about thirteen when I started studying composition. My first teacher was only at the university for a year, and we spent the year working on basic theory, harmony, and notation. He left, and then I studied with Gerald Plain, a composer who had just won the Prix de Rome and returned to the US and taught in Stevens Point. He introduced me to a wealth of music—played me reel-to-reel tapes of Berio, Stockhausen, Boulez, as well as his own music. It was an incredible experience for a kid in a fairly rural area. He then went off and taught at Eastman. A really interesting person and composer.

TM: What is the name of the university?

JFR: University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. It’s part of the state school system. I played with the university jazz ensemble when I was in high school too, and studied piano with a pianist on the faculty named Michael Keller. As a kid, I was exposed to a lot of great repertoire at a relatively young age. This was in the late seventies—I graduated from high school in 1981.

I spent a fair amount of time at the public library as well, checking out records and scores. I remember stumbling on Rite of Spring on my own—I suppose a lot of people remember the first time they hear that piece. At the time I was listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin, and I thought “this is the same kind of music.” I didn’t make a huge distinction—I thought “Well, this is rock music in its essence.” I was also very interested in jazz, and was gigging in the area with people who were twenty or thirty years my senior, and delved into arranging a little.

TM: Were you playing commercial music, for weddings and bar mitzvahs?

JFR: It ranged from that kind of thing to little jazz quartets and quintets. Because it was mostly rural, there weren’t many people who were playing jazz piano in the area, even though I wasn’t very good by any professional standard. But I was exposed to a lot of jazz in high school—I listened to Charlie Parker quite a bit—mainstream bop.

TM: Scott Lindroth, a composer who’s also from Wisconsin, mentioned the effect of the big bands that do clinics in high school gymnasiums. Was that something that you were exposed to as well?

JFR: A little—at the time, I was at least as interested in jazz as I was in classical music. When the big bands came through, I would definitely attend, and they would do clinics on occasion—sometimes I got to play in master-class situations.

TM: Often what people listen to as teens remains as vital, even forty years later. You mentioned Led Zeppelin. Did you also listen to progressive rock?

JFR: Not much. My rock world revolved around Led Zeppelin. When I got to college I was listening to things like Talking Heads as well, but by that point I had made the decision to study classical music and became more interested in that.

TM: The Seventies were huge in terms of fusion, with things like Mahavishnu.

JFR: That’s something I might have been exposed to a bit in high school, but I was much more interested in Bird, Tatum, Miles Davis, Coltrane—swing as well as bebop and modal jazz in the Sixties.

TM: How did you decide to continue with composition at the university level?

JFR: After the year that I spent studying with Gerald Plain, he left Stevens Point, and I was looking for another composition teacher. He had recommended a colleague, Bruce Wise, who taught at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, about a ninety minute drive away, and this was before I had my driver’s license. Once or twice a month my father would drive me to Oshkosh, and sit in the living room while I had a long composition lesson. At a certain point the conversation turned to whether I would pursue this in college, and it never occurred to me that I would pursue anything else—I was very focused on music.

I also had a couple of wonderful summers that I spent at the National Music Camp in Interlochen. That was a formative experience in many ways, because I realized that even though I was a good, competent pianist, hearing the students there, some of whom were considerably younger than I was, who were real virtuosos, real prodigies, made me realize that I had greater aptitude and more interest in being a composer. All of this narrowed down the places where I would apply to school, and Oberlin felt like a good fit for me.

TM: What was the focus when you were there?

JFR: I not only had an excellent musical education, but it’s a liberal arts college as well as a conservatory. I was part of a double degree program that allows students to get degrees from both the conservatory and the college, and I majored in composition and also had individual major that focused on contemporary art and aesthetics. I took classes in philosophy, art, history, literature, and of course, music.

We had well known composers visiting Oberlin—Cage, Xenakis, and Jacob Druckman, who I eventually studied with at Yale. For someone coming from a small town, it was an eye-opening experience.

TM: The downside of the conservatory can be hours spent in the practice room, with no time for broader pursuits, and it sounds like that was not the case at Oberlin.

JFR: Not at all. My parents and teachers in high school urged me to avoid that situation—not to go to a conservatory and just study music. Education abroad, liberal arts education, was important, and that is a principle I still adhere to. I encourage my students to read all kinds of books, to travel, to go to art openings and dance performances, to expose themselves to the wider world of art and ideas.

TM: What was the political atmosphere like there at the time? I imagine Oberlin to have been a particularly liberal spot in the Midwest.

JFR: Yes, that’s true, though the activism of the Sixties and Seventies had died down a bit by then. The emphasis was on learning.

TM: Were you still involved with jazz?

JFR: My focus had turned more toward classical music by then.

TM: You mentioned Jacob Druckman. Was that the factor that brought you to Yale?

JFR: I interviewed at Yale during my last year at Oberlin, but finances became an issue, and I wasn’t able to go directly on to graduate school. I took a number of years off, wrote a little bit of music. I lived in Boston for a while, where I sang in the Tanglewood Chorus. And I built furniture. I had gotten interested in woodworking and cabinetmaking, and toyed with the idea that I might become a furniture maker. I had a modest shop building things on my own—I wasn’t apprenticing myself to anyone.

Then in 1989 I made a decision—I want to continue with music, it’s just in my DNA, and this is what I want to pursue. I reapplied to Yale, and interviewed with Martin Bresnick and Jacob Druckman. They recalled that I had not been able to attend for financial reasons, and generously re-accepted me back into the program.

TM: Were there important experiences musically in Boston in the 80s?

JFR: I sang in the Tanglewood Chorus—we premiered a piece by Donald Martino, and I sang everything from Bach to Beethoven to Poulenc to Mahler with excellent conductors. I’ve always loved choral music—particularly Renaissance music—and I still sing on occasion. But with the Tanglewood Chorus, I would sometimes bring the orchestral scores to rehearsals in addition to the choral music. I had an opportunity not only to see how the orchestra worked, but how conductors rehearsed the orchestra, which was a good learning experience. I also went to concerts around the city. Around that time the Soviet Union was opening up, and there was a festival of Russian composers [Making Music Together] in Boston, all these composers who were barely known in the West—Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Shchedrin—these incredible composers all came to Boston. It was mindblowing!

TM: Under the auspices of Sarah Caldwell, as I recall. Let’s move on to Yale. You must have had fabulous fellow students there at that time.

JFR: I feel fortunate that at every stage in my education I have been in supportive environments and worked with excellent people. Both Bresnick and Druckman were wonderful. Amazing ears, amazing composers, amazing teachers…they brought in composers-in-residence, and I learned a great deal from my fellow student composers there as well. I also had the opportunity to study West African drumming for a year. It was a very intense, but productive and educational two years.

TM: Could you say a little about the works you were writing while you were at Yale?

JFR: Graduate school was a period of focus and discovering my own voice as a composer. At Yale I realized a number of things about my music: first and foremost that I think melodically and harmonically, and that I hear tonally. My music became more tonal than it had been at Oberlin. Plus my interest in jazz and exposure to West African music as well as the music of Ligeti and Nancarrow sparked a continuing interest in polyrhythm and polytempi. Many of my pieces explore the idea of rhythmic and textural complexity over relatively clear tonal harmonies. But my two years at Yale and four years at Cornell were a period where I figured those things out and who I was as a composer. Despite my early start, maybe I was a bit of a late bloomer.

TM: Did the school have a particular focus?

JFR: Diversity was something characteristic of Yale and Cornell, and something also true of Oberlin. The composers in the program wrote very different kinds of works. Some were more interested in minimalism, or wrote sparse Feldman-inspired music, some had jazz or rock influences—Yale and Cornell were supportive environments that didn’t impose stylistic restrictions. As a teacher I also don’t put restrictions on my students—I just try to help them figure out and refine what they are doing.

TM: Is there a piece from Yale that you would like to highlight?

JFR: I wrote a small piece for soprano, oboe, and guitar, which was a step along my path in distilling harmony and melody. It’s called Last Words, and is based on a poem by James Merrill.

TM: What is the idiom of the work?

JFR: It’s short, about six minutes. It’s a melodic piece, with the oboe acting as a plaintive voice against the soprano, a work that found a good focus. At that time my interest was in finding clarity in my musical expression. That is still a central concern.

TM: Take us on to Cornell. You studied with Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra.

JFR: Again, it was an opportunity to work with first-rate composers, and composers who are not just fine composers in their own right, but also fine teachers. Stucky and Sierra also have great ears, and had different takes on things. Students benefit from having people with different opinions and aesthetic backgrounds critique their work.

TM: Contemporary American composers seem to be faced with multiplicities of styles, where the composer can choose from styles ranging from Randall Thompson to Schnittke to John Adams….all the music from the entire twentieth century is present as possibility, and at the same time Americans don’t seem to be concerned with what it means to “be” American in their music, unlike composers from other countries, who may be tempted to have a “national” expression contrasting with the hegemonic power of the United States.

I was interested to hear what you said about your double major at Oberlin, because there are few works in your catalogue that are abstract – they all seem to have some sort of meaningful title or literary reference. There are probably not so many composers who reference Boethius, for example.

JFR: Maybe not [laughs].

TM: Often the extra-musical reference may be film, but for you it seems to be literature or philosophy.

JFR: Titles are invitations to people, a way to access your work—they’re not meant to be all-encompassing. I think a lot about titles in order to have something that gives the listener a way to enter into a piece.

I look at the question of style and voice obliquely in the sense that my own musical voice and style is a product …. I am an unrepentant melodist and harmonist. That’s just how I think about the music. An important part of my education was coming to terms with that. The kinds of musical techniques I use in service of that vary from situation to situation and from piece to piece. But one thing you will hear in all my works of the last fifteen years or so is a focus on melody, on clarity of form, and for me that is a central concern as a composer: finding the clearest and most emotionally expressive way of getting to whatever musical idea I’m working with. Everything counts, and everything is in service of some sort of emotional expression. I don’t expect a listener to share the same feeling that I have about a piece. And I also don’t worry that I have to write something that sounds exactly like my last piece so that people can recognize that it’s a Rogers work. My preoccupations as a composer are more in the areas of line and harmony, transparency of form and expression. Less about whether the thing that I am writing sounds new, however one might define that. I think many composers fall into two basic groups anyway: those who blaze new trails, and those who synthesize disparate things in new ways. I don’t think either group makes more or less compelling music. And while some of my work has pushed the envelope a bit, I’d say I generally fall into the latter category.

TM: You mentioned clarity of form—how does a piece take shape for you? Is there an idea that leads to a form, and then you fill in the form? Music can be designed architecturally or grow organically…which direction would you say it goes for you?

JFR: It depends on the piece, but it’s usually a combination of both. For example, if I have a commission for a ten-minute piece, I know that I have a ten-minute frame to work in. If the instrumentation is specified, I know what instruments I have to work with. I think of composition as a process of the piece becoming more and more in focus, more and more of what it wants to be. Form and content—it’s difficult to tease those two things apart. The way I come to a good sense of how a piece is shaping up is just through hard work—living with the material, thinking about it, sketching, trying things out. I’m a great believer in hard work and revision. Along the way, shapes, durations, basic harmonies, lengths of things—the formal aspects of the piece—begin to take hold, but I usually find it helpful to have some general idea of those things early on. Whether or not that gets jettisoned along the way is a function of the material that I am working with.

TM: One of the pieces that struck me was The Arc of Winter. It reflects what you said about being a melodist, since it has this very long line for the clarinet. Could you talk a little about the work?

JFR: That was a piece commissioned by the University of South Carolina to commemorate September 11, 2001. The concert was meant to be about a year after that. Initially, it was supposed to be an orchestra piece, but as I thought about it and about an event of that magnitude, I didn’t want to try to write a “9/11 piece.” It seemed impossible to even attempt it. I thought about it, and I talked to the administration that was commissioning the work, and I asked if it was alright to do something a little more modest, because I didn’t know how to approach something that could address such a traumatic event. I had the idea of a solo clarinet line set against the string choir as a way of personalizing a voice—the clarinet is an instrument that I have always been drawn to, along with strings in general—in a sort of public lament. It’s meant to be something more personal than commemorative—but the piece has a trajectory that ends on an uplifting and hopeful note—the strings and the clarinet go to their very highest ranges toward the end of the work. That is The Arc of Winter—the arc of grief—for me. It’s meant to be more intimate, rather than a public accounting of that event.

TM: It’s interesting to hear that, because it is a very striking piece. It makes perfect sense once you mention the genesis, but there is nothing explicit about it.

JFR: I guess I don’t like musical works that are too obvious. I like subtlety [laughs].

TM: One of the most successful works for 9/11 is perhaps the work by John Adams [On the Transmigration of Souls], possibly because it is American in referencing Charles Ives….Could you talk about other recent pieces for orchestra?

JFR: I just finished a seven movement work titled Magna Mysteria for solo soprano, chorus, and chamber orchestra. It’s based on Latin texts from Boethius as well as various Psalms. At the moment I’m working on a concerto for two pianos and orchestra for the South Carolina Philharmonic, that will premiere about a year from now. The soloists will be Marina Lomazov and Joseph Rackers, two colleagues and friends of mine who are husband and wife and also an incredible piano duo. But over the last several years I’ve mostly concentrated on writing chamber music.

TM: Is there a particular chamber work you would like to focus on? I know there is a large production.

JFR: It ranges from a piece for two marimbas and click tracks to other pieces that are on a CD which came out a year ago called Once Removed [Innova Recordings]. I also wrote a song cycle called Songs of Time and Tide, five songs on the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. It was written for my colleagues Tina Stallard [soprano] and Lynn Kompass [piano], both of whom were new mothers at the time. I feel inspired if I have a personal connection to the people that I write for—it helps me creatively. I liked the idea of, rather than writing a Sturm und Drang cycle or something about unrequited love, writing these songs. Tina had told me about Tagore and poems of his that relate to childhood. I thought that was a wonderful idea—a set of songs not just about childhood, but also about the passage of time.

TM: Do you sense a middle period coming on musically as a composer? Are your interests different than they were 30 years ago?

JFR: I have no idea—I will leave it for someone else to decide whether there’s a Rogers middle period. But I hope there’s a late period!

TM: We left you at Cornell - where did you go from there?

JFR: I moved back to Boston and taught for a few years at the Longy School of Music.

TM: You were teaching composition?

JFR: I taught composition and theory. It’s a school that’s split between a college/graduate division and a very strong preparatory program. The level is high, with a number of faculty who perform in the Boston Symphony. I had a composition seminar there, and taught harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration. In 2000 I joined the faculty at the University of South Carolina.

TM: So you now are a Southern composer.

JFR: I’m not sure what that would mean. My interests as a composer remain the same—but USC is a terrific school, as is the School of Music. I’m fortunate to have excellent students as well as great colleagues.

TM: Do you have large projects that you haven’t yet had a chance to address? An opera, or symphonic work?

JFR: All of the above. I have an idea for an opera, but I also enjoy having opportunities to write orchestral music. Orchestration is something that I very much enjoy teaching. For me, the orchestra is a big sonic playground, with endless toys and combinations of toys to play with. I also have chamber projects I’d like to start on, but for the moment, I’m focused on finishing the double piano concerto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/JohnFitzRogers.png image_description=John Fitz Rogers [Photo: Andrew Haworth] product=yes product_title=An Interview with John Fitz Rogers product_by=Interview by Tom Moore product_id=Above: John Fitz Rogers [Photo: Andrew Haworth]
Posted by Gary at 3:29 PM

December 15, 2009

Zürich’s Riveting ‘Corsaro’

For starters, it is uncommonly well sung and played with authentic style and real Italian ardor. One has come to expect such top tier musical quality from this marvelous Swiss company. But the surprising marvel of the evening was a wholly modern “concept” production that not only offered thrilling visiuals, but also uncompromising clarity.

Anyone who reads the pages of virtually any opera-related publication is well aware of the profusion of so-called “Eurotrash” productions that litter (word chosen carefully) the theatrical landscape, willfully undermining the work of art they are meant to serve, running perversely counter to the authors’ intentions, or just plain setting out to create an entirely un-related work casually relegating the music and drama to second banana status as a means to some sort of arrogantly pretentious “end.”

All the more remarkable then, that such a surreal production could pack such a wallop. How? Set designer Paolo Fantin used the ‘‘elements” as a basis for his breath-taking design. The island of the opening scene consisted of a weighty, over-sized, tilted writing desk, littered with books, and bearing its lone citizen: our troubled hero Corrado. Mr. C attempts to script letter after letter to his beloved only to crumple them and discard them in the sea. The desk floated and spun on a water-filled stage, backed by a huge tilted mirror wall that reflected the assembled forces as if from above. This provided a sensational kaleidoscopic effect that combined the best efforts of ‘performance art’ and contemporary ‘living’ sculpture.

The side mirrors could rise and fall when necessary to admit choristers or other scenic elements, chief of which was a huge floating/spinning bed that bore our soon-to-be-unhinged heroine Medora. ‘Earth’ consisted of a long narrow platform that tracked in to intersect the water, and occasionaly bringing with it an enormous dining table put to good use as a symbolic prop and another level as a playing area.

The front of the stage was outfitted with gas jets, so when the invaders set the town on fire, Corrado summoned the flames Wotan-like to appear, and appear they did, creating a dazzling wall of fire between us and the players, brilliantly multiplied by the mirrors.

Mr. Fantin had a willing accomplice in costume designer Carla Teti, who not only handsomely outfitted her male cast in rather traditional period attire, but served up some fantastical robes for the chorus, and eye-popping, shiny red plastic ball gowns for Gulnara and the Damenchor’s first scene. The riot of color and movement created by these crimson reflections was evocative of strewn poppies being carried by the wind. Wow!

I am not sure how difficult it must be to light all of this effectively, what with all the possibilities for blinding the audience with all those shiny surfaces, but Martin Gebhardt’s lighting design was just remarkable in its many effects, not the least of which was a really decent general wash when required.

403_DSC_0272.gifCarmen Giannattasio as Gulnara

Director Damiano Michieletto provided an assured staging that was lean and mean. He chose to confine the action to a smallish playing space for each scene, and to concentrate on intensely personal and specific interactions between the characters. What a concept! Actors listening to, and reacting to each other! If just this basic tenet caught on, many a Euro-trash production could improve 50%!

The tense duet between Seim and Gulnara was heightened to searing proportions by having the baritone unceremoniously heave her onto the dining table and begin to strangle her amid the fine china and flower arrangements, a shocking juxtaposition of uncivil behavior amid all the trappings of civility. Having Corrado and Medora play their entire first duet on her careening bed, not only added a hint of a carnal dimension, but more important, underscored and presaged her character’s fragility and instability. Throughout the night, Mr. Michieletto’s sure hand gave us telling stage pictures, focused drama, and (not inconsequential) wonderful traffic management of the large choral forces (singing dynamically under Chorus Master Jürg Hämmerli).

But all this would have been for naught had the music been ill-served, and here we were equally favored. For, as the Corsair of the title, Vittorio Grigolo is the real deal. There was not one moment that Mr. Grigolo was not fully committed to his portrayal, dramatically engaged, and interacting deferentially with his colleagues. He has a clean lyric tenor with some heft in the core sound, and while he is often singing at the limit of his current resources, the good news is he never attempts to exceed his capabilities. He is young, he is handsome, he is gifted with a meltingly beautiful instrument, and he is pacing himself well without ever stinting on emotionally-charged, arching lines. It is hoped that he does not just yet sing this role too often, or attempt such parts in a larger house, but note for note, this was star singing with superstar potential. Vittorio is a tenor to watch.

As Medora the reliable Elena Mosuc provided some bell-like fioriture and seamless flights above the staff. Her limpid tone was a terrific match for Grigolo’s in the warmly lyrical passages and she offered a very clear understanding of our heroine’s dramatic journey. In one of the few minor staging miscalculations, Ms. Mosuc’s superb vocalizing in her final mad scene was unnecessarily competing with the ladies sloshing through the water, strewing flowers (as noiselessly as they could, but distracting nonetheless). I would challenge the director to find a way to keep the wonderful effect but perhaps move it to a different moment.

403_DSC_0050.gifJuan Pons as Seid

Carmen Giannattasio (Gulnara) was new to me and what discovery she was, taking the stage from her first entrance and commanding our attention with ravishing phrasing, assured histrionics, and complete command of early Verdi. Ms. Giannattasio’s dusky soprano has a hint of metal, meaning she crested the climaxes with fine effect. Early on, I worried I might tire of her no-nonsense delivery. But she soon proved herself capable of well-controlled introspective phrases and moments of hushed, haunting piannissimi. I hope to encounter her again.

Stalwart veteran Juan Pons as Seid is in the autumn of a long and distinguished career. Mr. Pons is still a formidable figure and consummate professional, and he performs with fearless bravado. If his substantial baritone still has the presence and volume of old, it has to be conceded that years of Scarpia’s and Tonio’s et al. have left the instrument a little woolly around the edges. But his imposing artistry proved a perfect foil for the three fresh-voiced “youngsters” in the cast.

And speaking of youth: in the pit young Eivind Gullberg Jensen led quite a stylish account of this equally youthful score. At all times, he displayed a real flair for the genre, and the maestro inspired his talented performers with an evident love of the piece. His belief in Verdi’s early effort was infectious and we all willingly succumbed to his committed rendition.

This hit performance of Il Corsaro (wildly cheered) offered sure-handed direction in a visually pleasing physical production married to superlative playing and singing that included a rising star tenor: the best of both worlds, indeed.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/403_DSC_0062_1.gif image_description=Vittorio Grigolo as Corrado [Photo courtesy of Opernhaus Zürich] product=yes product_title= product_by=Carmen Giannattasio (Gulnara), Elena Mosuc (Medora); Vittorio Grigolo (Corrado), Giuseppe Scorsin (Giovanni), Juan Pons/Renato Bruson (Seid), Michael Laurenz Müller (Eunuco), Pablo Ricardo Bemsch (un schiavo), Shinya Kitajima (Selimo). Conductor: Eivind Gullberg Jensen. Producer: Damiano Michieletto. Set design: Paolo Fantin. Costumes: Carla Teti. Lighting: Martin Gebhardt. Orchester der Oper Zürich. Chor der Oper Zürich product_id=Above: Vittorio Grigolo as Corrado

All photos courtesy of Opernhaus Zürich
Posted by james_s at 7:46 AM

December 13, 2009

VERDI: Falstaff — Wales 2008

Music composed by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Libretto by Arrigo Boito after The Merry Wives of Windsor and King Henry IV by William Shakespeare.

First Performance: 9 February 1893, Teatro alla Scala, Milan.

Principal Characters:
Sir John FalstaffBaritone
Ford, husband of AliceBaritone
FentonTenor
Dr.CaiusTenor

Bardolfo and Pistola, followers of FalstaffTenors
Mrs. Alice FordSoprano
Nannetta, daughter of AliceSoprano
Mrs. QuicklyMezzo-Soprano
Mrs. Meg PageMezzo-Soprano

Setting: Windsor, during the reign of Henry IV of England

Synopsis

Act I.

A room at the Garter Inn. Falstaff is surrounded by his servants Bardolfo, Pistola and the innkeeper, when Dr. Caius arrives and accuses him of robbery, but the excited doctor is soon ejected. Falstaff hands letters to his servants for delivery to Mistress Ford and to Mistress Page. The letters, which purport of Falstaff’s love for the respectable women, are intended to seduce them (although he is really seducing them for the money). Bardolfo and Pistola refuse, however, claiming that ‘honor’ prevents them from obeying his orders. Sending the letters by a page instead, Falstaff confronts his servants (’Che dunque l’onore? Una parola!’ — ‘What, then, is honor? A word!‘) and chases them out of his sight.

Change of scene: Ford’s garden. Alice and Meg have received Falstaff’s letters, both of identical contents. They exchange them, and in conjunction with Mistress Quickly, resolve to punish the knight. The three are also none too pleased with Master Ford, who is intending to give his daughter Nannetta in marriage to Dr. Caius. This, they resolve, will not happen. Meanwhile, Ford has been apprised of the letters by Bardolfo and Pistola. All three are athirst for vengeance. A brief love duet between Fenton and Nannetta follows; the women return home and, through Mistress Quickly, a maid, invite Falstaff to an assignation. The men also arrive upon the scene, and Bardolfo and Pistola are persuaded to introduce Ford to Falstaff under an assumed name.

Act II.

Same room as in the first scene of Act I. Bardolfo and Pistola (now in the pay of Ford), pretending to beg for forgiveness for past transgressions, announce to their master the arrival of Mistress Quickly, who delivers the invitation. Ford is now introduced as Signor Fontana, who offers money to the fat knight to intercede for him with Mistress Ford. Falstaff agrees with pleasure, and while he attires himself in splendid array in his chamber, Ford is consumed with jealousy (’È sogno o realtà?’ — ‘Is it a dream or reality?‘).

Change of scene: A room in Ford’s house. As Mistress Quickly announces the coming of Falstaff, Mistress Ford has a large clothes basket placed in readiness. Falstaff’s attempts to seduce the lady are cut short as Mistress Quickly reports the arrival of Mistress Page, and the knight is compelled to conceal himself behind a screen. When the angry Ford with his friends appear to capture Falstaff, the latter hides in the basket. In the meantime, a love scene between Fenton and Nannetta takes place behind the screen, and the men returning, hear the sound of a kiss; they think to entrap Falstaff, but find Fenton, who is ordered by Ford to leave. When the men again proceed with the search, the women order the wash basket to be thrown into the ditch, where Falstaff is compelled to endure the jeers of the crowd.

Act III.

Before the inn. Falstaff, in a gloomy mood, curses the sorry state of the world. Some mulled wine, however, soon improves his mood. The fat knight again receives an invitation through Dame Quickly, which is overheard by the men. After Falstaff, dubious at first, has promised to go to Herne’s Oak dressed as the Black Huntsman, the place of meeting, he enters the house with Dame Quickly, and the men concoct a plan for his punishment. Dr. Caius is promised the hand of Nannetta, and is told of her disguise. The plot is overheard by Dame Quickly.

Change of scene: At Herne’s Oak in Windsor Park. A moonlit midnight. The women disguise Fenton as a monk, and arrange that he shall spoil the plans of Dr. Caius. Falstaff’s love scene with Mistress Ford is interrupted by the announcement that witches are approaching, and the men disguised as elves and fairies thrash Falstaff soundly. When their vengeance is satisfied, Dr. Caius finds that he has captured Bardolfo instead of Nannetta in the garb of a fairy queen, but Fenton and Nannetta, with the consent of Ford, are joined in wedlock. Falstaff, pleased to find himself not the only dupe, proclaims in a fugue that the whole world is a joke (Tutto nel mondo è burla).

[Synopsis Source: Wikipedia]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Falstaff.png image_description=Falstaff by Eduard Theodor Ritter von Grützner (1925)

audio=yes firstaudioname=Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff firstaudiolink=http://www.operatoday.com/Falstaff2.m3u

product=yes producttitle=Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff productby=Sir John Falstaff: Bryn Terfel; Dr Caius: Anthony Mee; Bardolph: Neil Jenkins; Pistol: Julian Close; Alice Ford: Janice Watson; Nannetta; Clare Ormshaw; Meg Page: Imelda Drumm; Mistress Quickly: Anne-Marie Owens; Ford: Christopher Purves; Fenton: Rhys Meirion. Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera. Carlo Rizzi, conducting. Live performance, Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre, March 2008.

Posted by Gary at 8:55 AM

December 11, 2009

Notes of Ancient Greece in a Seldom-Seen Work

By ALLAN KOZINN [NY Times, 11 December 2009]

The Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater keeps its students on their toes with a balance of unusual works they may never sing again and standard repertory that they will sing plenty. The audiences for these productions stand to benefit either way. The Manhattan School has a fine track record for turning out singers of consequence: Susan Graham and Dolora Zajick are among the program’s alumni. And its repertory choices have been discerning. Though the Metropolitan Opera is getting around to Shostakovich’s “Nose” this season, the Manhattan School staged it in 1985.

Posted by Gary at 3:04 PM

Puccini Romance

The main target is therefore the local audience who can currently see these two artists regularly singing with Opera Australia. None the less this disc has some attractions. They are not, however, in the musical layout. Multiple selections from an opera are presented out of order. This is less of an issue with operas like Madama Butterfly or Tosca, where the chosen excerpts are separated often by an entire act, but informed listeners will be amused by the four La Bohème items which places “O soave fanciulla” before “Che gelida manina” and “Sì, mi chiamo Mimi” so that the young couple declare their love before making their introductions. More amusing still is that ‘Mimi’s farewell’ follows immediately so having “come to bother you at an inconvenient time”, she immediately declares her intention to return alone to her solitary nest to make fake flowers!

Rosario La Spina has the makings of a good tenor. He has a bright ‘Italianate’ voice, if occasionally backwardly placed on some higher notes but the biggest irritant are the intrusive aspirates that occur throughout. They may assist him into top notes and give the impression of that ‘hairy-chested’ singing of the Del Monarco/Corelli variey but they become tiresome for repeated listening and the Tosca duet is riddled with them. He has a natural feeling for Italian, singing through diphthongs and making some beautiful sounds although his actual handling of the words is disappointing compared to the careful attention his partner Antoinette Halloran gives to the texts. His phrases are dully shaped, salient words or the emotions they convey are rarely pointed. It would be hard to imagine any soprano responding to his serenades, let alone undergoing the emotional and physical tortures Puccinian women suffer for their men.

Halloran is another bright and intelligent Australian soprano. Her Mimi and Butterfly are well thought out and characterised. In the ‘Dream’ aria from La Rondine her voice expands into a rich and well controlled forte. Her singing in the ‘Butterfly’ duet is the highlight.

The unsung, so to speak, heroes are conductor Stephen Mould and the orchestra, underpinning the moods and commenting on the characters like old troupers from an Italian house that play this music daily. In “Sì, mi chiamo Mimi”, the short, blunted phrases as she details her dull daily routine suddenly swell, as she mentions the pleasure spring flowers bring her, into beautiful arching phrases. La Spina, incidentally, is not on hand to sing ‘si’ when she asks “lei m’intende?” The disc ends with the “Butterfly” duet where the orchestra respond superbly; the harp passage as Butterfly begins to remove her wedding gown almost suggests its silken texture. Similarly, the horns in the closing moments throb with suggestive anticipation as Pinkerton urges Butterfly into his arms and bed. The low gong strike in that closing passage hovers in mid-air and the overall sound is in the demonstration class.

Michael Magnusson

image=http://www.operatoday.com/394954.jpg image_description=Puccini Romance

product=yes producttitle=Puccini Romance
Arias and duets from La Bohème, Tosca, Le Villi, La Fanciulla del West, Turandot and Madama Butterfly. product
by=Antoinette Halloran, soprano; Rosario La Spina, tenor. The Queensland Orchestra. Stephen Mould, conductor. productid=ABC Classics 476 6404 price=$35.98 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B0013NFPMQ

Posted by Gary at 1:25 PM

Emma Matthews in Monte Carlo

Matthews is mostly known for her already formidable coloratura technique. In her work with Opera Australia Matthews projects a big, secure voice in lyric and coloratura roles but also in less likely assignments including the title role in one Opera Australia’s finest achievements, Alban Berg’s Lulu, using that light, lyrical voice to revelatory effect.

This co-production between ABC Classics and Deutsche Grammophon will also be released internationally and coincides with Matthews launches her international career. The project is a luxurious one, instead of an Australian orchestra the Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo is employed and even a second singer (mezzo Catherine Carby) has been brought over to sing the ‘pertichio’ role in the Lucia di Lammermoor scene.

The disc opens with a restrained account of “Glitter and Be Gay” from Bernstein’s operetta-inspired Candide. Eschewing the histrionics that often negate the song’s effects Matthew’s equates the coloratura passages to the type of musical laughter familiar from Manon Lescauts’ laughing song in Auber’s opera or the best known example, Adele’s laughing song in Die Fledermaus. The result is immensely satisfying and encourages multiple hearings.

The folksy “Last Rose of Summer” from Flotow’s Martha reveals Matthews’s beautiful legato but the bulk of the disc is a 60 minute ‘potted’ history of the Bel Canto era before ending with a return to simple serenity. Instead of the celebrated mad-scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor comes the equally dramatic fountain scene is chosen which introduces Lucia (and subtly indicates her mental breakdown is already beginning). The featured mad scene is Ophelia’s scene and ballade from Thomas’s Hamlet. Given in full it the best demonstration of Matthews’s impressive technique as she incorporates the higher and more florid passages introduced by the singer Marie Carvalho and incorporated into the original vocal scores. Matthews then gives an even more elaborate account of the ‘Doll Song” from Les Contes d’Hoffmann and then just enough of an arrangement (the entire thing overstays its welcome even for coloratura fanciers) by Richard Bonynge of Proch’s Theme and Variations (presumably with his wife Joan Sutherland in mind) and which Matthews sings with the same power and agility as Sutherland.

The recital closes with two Australian compositions, and orchestration of a song by Calvin Bowman that has a folksy simplicity and even a beguiling Scotch rhythm in places. The Nightingale’s song from Richard Mill’s opera The Love of The Nightingale is sadly too brief an excerpt from an opera Matthews is so closely associated with. Sounding like a classical vocalise and orchestrated in a lush Ravel-ian manner it brings some beautiful playing from the orchestra. The conductor, Brad Cohen, has a personal interest in this 19th French operatic repertoire and the orchestra, as expected, are a world class band who respond to the familiar items, bringing some very Gallic and incisive playing to the scene from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. The recording is demonstration class, Matthews’s voice given an immediate presence with the strings, in particular in the Bowman item, sounding luscious.

Michael Magnusson

Program:

Leonard Bernstein: Candide — Glitter and Be Gay

Leo Delibes: Lakme — Ou va la jeune Indoue (Bell Song)

Friedrich von Flotow: Martha — The Last Rose of Summer

Gaetano Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor — Ancor non giunse…Regnava nel silenzio…Quando rapito In estasi (with Catherine Carby mezzo-soprano)

Vincenzo Bellini: I Capuleti e i Montecchi — Eccomi in lieta vesta…Oh! quante volte

Charles Gounod: Roméo et Juliette — Air de la coupe: Dieu quel frisson … Amour, ranime mon courage

Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet — A vos jeux, mes amis… Partagez-vous mes fleurs… (scène de la folie d’ Ophelie)

Jaques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann — Les oiseaux dans la charmille

Heinrich Proch (arr. Richard Bonynge): Deh! Torna, mio bene, Theme and Variations

Calvin Bowman: Now Touch the Air Softly

Richard Mills: The Love of the Nightingale — The Nightingale’s Song

image=http://www.operatoday.com/310434.jpg image_description=Emma Matthews in Monte Carlo

product=yes producttitle=Emma Matthews in Monte Carlo productby=Emma Mathews, soprano. Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo Brad Cohen, conductor. productid=ABC Classics/ Deutsche Grammophon 476 3555 price=$35.98 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B002I333IS

Posted by Gary at 12:26 PM

Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the MET

Not only is the hero a half-mad drunkard, he spends the Prologue poking fun at a crippled dwarf (impersonated by a crouching waiter in the Met’s new production), and the plot makes nasty reference to many another illness, deformity or crippling disorder. Stammers, deafness, simple-mindedness and a hump afflict the four servant roles generally assigned to one character tenor, while the heroines — Hoffmann’s loves — are consumptive, soulless, faithless or simply robotic. The four villains and the hero’s only friend are evidently supernatural which may not count as a handicap. Science, society and medicine are debunked and defiled. The libretto even contains a few swipes at the egos of opera singers. The conclusion of this odd comedy is bitter — despairing of love, Hoffmann takes refuge in drink and in creativity — though in the edition currently on view at the Met (no two Met productions of the work have ever played quite the same score, of which no definitive edition exists) an uplifting choral conclusion has been added to placate us.

Bartlett Sher’s stark but handsome production of Hoffmann, like many other creations of the new Met regime, faces the challenge of following a venerable, popular and attractive one. Why did Otto Schenk’s wacky box of goodies need replacement at all? Who can forget the rathskeller that sank into the stage, or the shop of dizzy, whirling mechanisms that slowly moved downstage to take its place during the gavotte, or Crespel’s blue Biedermeier drawing room with its walls permeable to the demonic Dr. Miracle? Well, we’ll have to forget them because the world moves on, and new varieties of stage magic are in constant demand.

HOFFMANN_Calleja_and_Netrebko_2514.pngJoseph Calleja as Hoffmann and Anna Netrebko as Antonia

Sher’s innovations, which are handsome and amusing, may prove less expensive to keep in shape, relying as they do on projections and a few simple descending flats. One small arched doorway and three gothic windows — plus a lot of cushions and a gondola sliding by mid-stage — are enough to evoke Venice, right? More can often be done with less, and Sher has made that his watchword. In Act II, for instance, Munich was suggested by wintry light and a few transparencies, a chair and a spinet. At the opening of Act III, the audience gasped and cheered as the curtain rose — and yet all we saw was an array of lanterns, a swagged gauze scrim, that narrow Venetian flat, and a crowd of singers, dancers, supernumeraries strewn about the stage in attitudes of artful clutter, dressed in elaborately diverse costumes — hey, it’s Carnival! — a dozen or so wearing hardly anything, and implying still less by some Fosse-esque callisthenic dancing. Dress and lighting are all. The set dazzles without actually being a set, as insubstantial as the feverish workings of Hoffmann’s brain. The opening scene, a tavern next door to an opera house, was similarly devised, all kegs and tables and benches, while the rear of the stage lit up when necessary with a projection of the Old Met — and Hoffmann’s desk strewn with unfinished manuscripts was downstage right and remained there most of the evening. Those who recall the Schenk production may remain sentimental, but those new to Hoffmann will not feel they missed anything in the way of glamour or storytelling.

Does anyone other than opera and ballet lovers still read E.T.A. Hoffmann’s once popular stories, also the source of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Delibes’s Coppélia, Hindemith’s Cardillac and Offenbach’s Le Roi Carrotte? Poe knew Hoffmann’s stories well; they are as grotesque as Poe, but lack the psychological tension that gives Poe’s work its sense of undercurrents untold.

Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse

It is Sher’s conceit to meld Hoffmann’s genius with that of the far more familiar Kafka, with whom he has little in common except an openness to the fantastic. Kafka’s tales, though they share Hoffmann’s unease with the inhuman novelties of modern technology that make many sensitive souls feel lost in a rapidly changing world, are more metaphorical and political, rarely just odd for odd’s sake as Hoffmann’s often are. But this permits Sher to set his Hoffmann in Kafka’s 1920s for, seemingly, the sole reward of having the non-singing La Stella enter in flapper dress, and in order to place an iconic typewriter on Hoffmann’s desk. At least the prologue and epilogue are set in the 1920s — the Munich (Antonia) scene appears to be set in the 1820s, and Venice (Giulietta) the eighteenth century, but since Hoffmann is supposedly inventing these tales as he tells them, we can blame his wild imagination for any conflict. Catherine Zuber has costumed the robot Olympia in clown getup and a red-violet wig, the consumptive diva Antonia in a dressing gown, the courtesan Giulietta in panniers that look neither sensual nor comfortable. Hoffmann wears his usual frock coat and Crespel a wonderful nineteenth-century smoking robe and shako.

The directorial conceit offers many felicities — I loved the horse-drawn carriage that brings Dr. Miracle to Crespel’s door, and the winding green dragon in Spalanzani’s workshop that continues to spiral throughout the act — but also many puzzles. Nicklausse seems to be playing both sides in Sher’s vision — granted he/she is the Muse who wishes to blight Hoffmann’s love life in order to keep his genius feeding her lust for art, but here she is truly the Devil’s Advocate, supplying the villain with the ingredients of his manic destructiveness, handing the doctor his flasks, the inventor his spectacles, Dapertutto the diamond to tempt Giulietta, remaining on stage to manage the wickedness in scenes where Nicklausse has nothing to sing. This is distracting, but a real offense is the hymn to salvation through love tacked on to the epilogue, derived from the Muse’s final song, when the moral of the story the opera tells, and the motivation behind all of the Muse’s behavior, is that love is empty, that only by his creative genius can Hoffmann be redeemed. The new ending feels false and wrong.

Joseph Calleja undertook to learn the long and strenuous role of Hoffmann when Rolando Villazon’s career crashed and burned last winter. The Maltese tenor is tall and sturdy and a passionate actor, with a wide range and a wonderful liquid top, but at the second performance of the run he sounded uncomfortable, perhaps merely tired, at many points of the evening, a shade under pitch and with the beginning of a bleat that could be either exhaustion or affectation. Considering the pressures leading up to this premiere (he was obliged to withdraw from the dress rehearsal by illness), I am hoping this less than ideal occasion was simply an off-night. But the part may be too heavy for him.

Kathleen Kim

The trouser role of Hoffmann’s pal, Nicklausse — who is secretly the Muse of Poetry — has been increasing steadily from edition to edition. On this occasion he/she was elevated from sidekick to prima donna, and Kate Lindsey, young, slim, attractive, with a dark, flawlessly placed mezzo soprano and a range of expression from foolish to satirical to sympathetic, gave it star quality. Although the role is now longer than it ever used to be, she was almost the only singer of the night who never seemed to be struggling for enough breath to support whatever phrase she cared to sing, as loud as might be needed or as softly, persuasively as the drama called for.

Hoffmann’s loves were portrayed by Kathleen Kim, Anna Netrebko and Ekaterina Gubanova. Kim is tiny, charming, pleasant and occasionally shrill as Olympia, the rare role that is easier to sing than it sounds. (I’ve seldom heard a bad one; Natalie Dessay was the best.) Gubanova produced seriously deep, Slavic tones that gave pleasure when not wobbling, but how useful these were to characterize the shallow Giulietta may be doubted. Netrebko sang the most powerful Antonia since Sutherland, and in Sher’s vision (which is not Offenbach’s), her grand operatic posturing worked very well. As in all her roles in French or Italian she sounded, frankly, Russian — something in her manner of creating a phrase is taught in the east, not in the regions where western music was composed. She was wise not to attempt all the heroines.

In this production, there is no attempt to make the four villains look unalike — they are the same man in the same black leather duster, and Hoffmann’s insistence that they are one and the same (and the Devil) therefore strikes us, as it should, as a sign of mental imbalance, of fixation on the fellow in the Prologue who will run off with his girl in the Epilogue. They were sung by shaven-skulled Alan Held, who looks tall and ominous even beside tall Mr. Calleja, but he sometimes seemed to be pushing to fill out the part’s diabolic phrases, high notes were evaded in “Scintille, diamant,” and recollections of James Morris in these roles remain golden and unequaled.

While Mr. Held was the same demon in four acts, Alan Oke played the four ridiculous servants with impressive diversity, from Andrès’s mincing venality to Pitichinaccio’s shambling menace — he even appeared to be short as Frantz, and sang that character’s little song with an exceptionally strong and flavorsome tenor.

James Levine, who is evidently responsible for the choices among editions of the score (there is no version of Hoffmann that someone will not denounce as inauthentic), conducted with a sure, tight hand: the demonic leitmotiv came over as just that, but the “numbers” that traditionally draw applause did so — when they deserved to. The Met’s chorus were splendid and their dancers always work best when their work is not center stage but merely accompanies a drama focused elsewhere.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Hoffmann_Calleja.png image_description=Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann product_by=Hoffmann: Joseph Calleja; Muse of Poetry/Nicklausse: Kate Lindsey; Lindorf, etc.: Alan Held; Olympia: Kathleen Kim; Antonia: Anna Netrebko; Giulietta: Ekaterina Gubanova; Four Servants: Alan Oke. Production by Bartlett Sher. Conducted by James Levine. Metropolitan Opera, performance of December 7. product_id=Above: Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:20 PM

A Streetcar Named Desire at Opera Australia

Despite the sensational impact Menotti’s The Consul had when it premiered in Australia in 1953 — making a star out of Marie Collier — it was revived professionally only once more in 1985. Even Menotti’s perennial Christmas favourite Amahl and the Night Visitors has had few professional productions. Consequently the 2007 production of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire was a significant event.

Previn has composed vocal music and music theatre often during his long career but for his first, fully-fledged opera, he has approached the task from an area he knows better than most other opera composers. When the work premiered in 1998 commentators considered the music and approach, with its many jazz references, to be more akin to cinema in style and form. Listening to the way Previn’s score fits the stage action and libretto it is indeed very cinematic and works in the same way a skilled screen composer (which Previn is) underscores action, giving the visuals a musically dramatic undercurrent equal to the emotional content of the scene. Musically it is very approachable, with overtones of Copland, Barber, Menotti, Britten and Previn’s very knowledgeable synthesis of American jazz in its make up but never as derivative as some commentators would make it out to be. Very soon one becomes accustomed to the music and style and it appears that vocal lines are created out of the musical undercurrent rather accompanied by it. Not that Previn does not create arias per se. There are many solo moments or aria and arioso, the earliest being when Stella (Antoinette Halloran) describes to the astonished Blance (Yvonne Kenny) her unconditional love for the brutish Stanley (Teddy Tahu Rhodes). Cradled in music of great beauty and lyricism Previn creates a mood within the orchestra as an arching and aching commentary under Stella’s attempt to make Blanche understand her love. As important as the sung music are Previns’s preludes and interludes. The prelude includes jazzy chords that recur and represent, like a motive, Blance Du Bois doom. The interludes, like those in Menotti’s The Consul, hold or develop the action of a scene and seamlessly develop it into the next.

Tackling such a landmark drama as A Streetcar Named Desire was a brave and almost heroic undertaking but Previn’s confidence and skill have made it one of the better American operas of the last twenty years, if not one of the best since Samuel Barber’s Vanessa of half a century ago. Like Barber, Previn has the compositional nouse to make time stand still, even when the imminent tragedy is piling up. Blanche’s “I Can Smell the Sea Air” — in the play just another Blanche’s hopeless and self-deluding rambles — appears in the opera as moment of stillness and beauty (as well as a tragic indicator) and not surprisingly started to gather as much popularity as a stand-alone concert item as the more outgoing “I Want Magic”.

Antoinette Halloran as Stella Kowalski, Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Stanley Kowalski and Yvonne Kenny as Blanche DuBois

Blanche is opera’s tragic protagonist, just as she is in the play but, as with the play, her antagonist, Stanley Kowalski almost overtakes her. Teddy Tahu Rhodes has made something of a name for himself in the role both physically and vocally. He first undertook the role in Washington and later in the Viennese premiere in March 2007 and then in the Australian later that year. His well-known physical credentials are perfectly suited to the role as is his deep and well-focussed baritone. Here he lessens that focus giving it a blunt edge for Stanley’s frequent and violent outbursts. Philip Littell’s libretto follows the play text with often slavish faithfulness and Little retains enormous amounts of the original text in, what can sound when it sung rather than spoken, rather banal. In his earliest appearance, and already displaying his contempt for Blanche’s pretentious mannerism, Rhode’s voice sounds almost cavernous in darkness and depth. That their relationship will end in one of the most frightening assaults in theatrical literature seems almost pre-ordained from the moment Rhodes opens his mouth. In the scene leading to Blanche’s assault he goads and threatens her while Previn’s music, now keenly integrating the vocal and orchestral fabric into an explosive scene with the same cathartic power as the verismo operas of the early twentieth century. These final two scenes are a genuinely disturbing experience to watch. Even the though the opera has been served well by a recording taken from the premiere, it really needs to be re-recorded to preserve the boiling, aggressiveness of Rhodes’s interpretation.

Blanche is rightly the opera’s heroine and Yvonne Kenny achieves her best work in the many introspective moments. Only the most dramatic moments appear to tax her voice but her interpretation of “I Can Smell the Sea Air” is ravishing. Mad women and mad scenes are noting new to opera and the pathos of Blanche Du Bois’s final scene is as good as any of them. Caressing the final floating high notes of “I Can Smell the Sea Air” she is minutes later pinned to floor by the madhouse nurse and finally lead away in final scene as disturbing in its pathos as the brutality of the rape scene that precedes it.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Stanley Kowalski and Yvonne Kenny as Blanche DuBois

Stuart Skelton is another singer of international status. Fresh from a recent triumph in Sydney as Peter Grimes, he brought the same naivety to his interpretation of Mitch. The hopeless desire for and then cruel rejection of Blanche even harks back to the scenes between Grimes and Ellen Orford in Britten’s opera.

As Stella Antoinette Halloran is in the same vocal league as her internationally known colleagues. Her singing is constantly subtle and is beautifully supported soprano. Halloran features in a disc on the Australian label ABC Classics of Puccini arias and duets and which is worth seeking out, hers is a voice to listen out for.

The opera’s hothouse atmosphere is well captured by John Stoddart sets; seeming to be mouldering through years of damp and neglect although there is no suggestion of Blanche’s cramped and curtained sleeping quarters. The State Theatre stage is larger than its more famous Sydney counterpart and the revolving set sits within the larger area concentrating the attention to stage action. The director, Bruce Beresford, has, like Previn, had a long in motion pictures and, as a film director, understands the importance of a musical undercurrent. He achieves many detailed effects despite working on a large stage and even employs film projections in key moments to clever effect.

This current revival is a significant event in the company’s repertoire development and hopefully signals that the production will now remain Opera Australia’s permanent repertoire.

Michael Magnusson

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Streetcar01.png image_description= Yvonne Kenny as Blanche DuBois and Stuart Skelton as Mitchell [Photo by Jeff Busby courtesy of Opera Australia] product=yes product_title=André Previn: A Streetcar Named Desire product_by=Blanche DuBois: Yvonne Kenny; Stella Kowalski: Antoinette Halloran; Stanley Kowalski: Teddy Tahu Rhodes; Harold ‘Mitch’ Mitchell: Stuart Skelton; Eunice Hubble: Dominica Matthews; Steve Hubble: Andrew Brunsdon; A Young Collector: Stephen Smith; A Mexican Woman: Jacqueline Dark. Conductor: Tom Woods; Director: Bruce Beresford; Set & Costume Designer: John Stoddart. State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Melbourne. December 2, 5 & 12 2009.Blanche DuBois: product_id=Above: Yvonne Kenny as Blanche DuBois and Stuart Skelton as Mitchell

All photos by Jeff Busby courtesy of Opera Australia
Posted by Gary at 11:59 AM

December 10, 2009

Andrea Chénier, Paris Opera (Bastille), Paris

By Francis Carlin [Financial Times, 10 December 2009]

Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (1896), like Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (1902), is a second-division opera that with the right, sophisticated treatment can sweep even cynics off their feet. The Paris Opera managed it handsomely for the Cilea in 1993 when Jean-Luc Boutté promoted the work to the operatic premier league by tempering the music’s verismo accents with fine acting and simple, elegant sets.

Posted by Gary at 3:08 PM

Der Rosenkavalier - Royal Opera House, London

The Marschallin knows she’ll never be young again, and accedes to a new generation with whom the future lies. She was herself once like Sophie, forced into marriage by social convention. Strauss depicts a Vienna that by 1911 was about to be swept away. Even Octavian and Sophie have long gone, like “Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr.” Obviously in this revival, the costumes (Maria Björnsen) are new-made, and the sets (William Dudley) have been refreshed, but the air of musty decay is deliberate, because it’s an essential part of the narrative. This gorgeously gilded world is built on false values. By supporting Sophie and Octavian, the Marschallin is placing her faith in love.

There are those who think operas should be museum pieces, preserved forever at the moment of birth. In real life, though, every revival is a new work because the people involved are coming new to it. Even if they’ve sung the roles many times before, the specific demands of performance create a new dynamic. Directing revivals isn’t easy, because everyone has to be inspired all over again.

Sophie Koch as Octavian

Soile Isokoski is one of the greatest Strauss singers of our times. Her experience, and reflective, emotional depth could have made this an exceptionally well-rounded Marschallin. Isokoski’s voice has a smoky, wistful timbre that captures the Marschallin’s true personality. For whatever reason, in this production, Isokoski’s subtle approach seemed sidelined. Because so much is going on in the second act, it’s easy to forget how the Marschallin permeates the opera even when she’s not present. She was kleine Resi, just as Sophie is now. What happens in Faninal’s mansion may well have happened in her father’s home. She may not appear again until the end, but it’s “her” story, reprised anew.

Peter Rose as Baron Ochs and Lucy Crowe as Sophie

the production is so high on visual values, the balance shifts to Octavian, who is, after all the Rosenkavalier, the personification of youth and the future. Sophie Koch is good, even her slight weaknesses play well into the character’s immaturity. More gusto in the “dialect” passages would have been welcome, connecting to the social satire in the plot. Who knows what Octavian might become when he grows older? Lucy Crowe’s Sophie is well acted, bringing out the spoilt brat aspects of the role. Octavian might have a hard time. Strauss had Pauline, so he knew very well that in real life marriages don’t follow the “rules” of society.

There’s a strong element of subversion in this opera, often overlooked in the frills and frou-frou. Strauss sends up the social order, parodying Viennese waltzes, depicting the baseness of aristocratic rule. Peter Rose’s Baron Ochs is suitably brutish. Even a nobleman as debased as he would have been marginally literate, but von Hoffmansthal points out his illiteracy clearly, so it can’t be missed. Strauss builds similar crudity into the music, which Rose might have made more grotesque, but it wouldn’t have worked against Kiril Petrenko’s civil and well behaved conducting. It was good, too, to hear two other Grandees of British opera, Thomas Allen and Graham Clark, as Faninal and Valzacchi.

Thomas Allen as Faninal, Lucy Crowe as Sophie and Sophie Koch as Octavian

This revival (directed by Andrew Sinclair) won’t go down as one of the great moments in performance history, because it lacks the fire and pain that lies in the score. Nonetheless, it’s still immeasurably better value than the usual level of “festive fare” on offer at this time of the year. Even if it’s muted, it’s still a decent artistic experience.

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/IsokoskiMarschallin.gif imagedescription=Soile Isokoski as the Marschallin [Photo by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Richard Strauss : Der Rosenkavalier productby=Octavian: Sophie Koch; The Marschallin: Soile Isokoski; Sophie: Lucy Crowe; Mohammed: Ostin D’Silva; Baron Ochs: Peter Rose; Major-Domo to the Marschallin: Robert Anthony Gardiner; Noble widow: Glenys Groves; Valzacchi: Graham Clark; Italian Singer: Wooyung Kim; Faninal: Thomas Allen; Sophie’s duenna: Elaine McKrill; Major -Domo to Faninal: Steven Ebel; Doctor: Alan Duffield; Innkeeper: Robert Worle; Police Chief: Jeremy White. Royal Opera Chorus, director: Renato Balsadoinna. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conductor: Kiril Petrenko. Original Director: John Schlesinger. Revival Director: Andrew Sinclair. Set design: William Dudley. Costume design: Maria Björnsen. Lighting design: Robert Bryan. Royal Opera House, London, 7th December 2009. product_id=Above: Soile Isokoski as the Marschallin

All photos by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera
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Posted by anne_o at 5:34 AM

December 8, 2009

Tchaikovsky’s Sure-Footed ‘Slippers’

Tchaikovsky’s seldom seen opus is not, to be sure, in the same league as his Onegin, Queen of Spades or even Mazeppa. But Slippers is nevertheless chockful of the musical ingredients that inform the composer’s weightier works, and the master’s melodic gifts were often in evidence. Most of us (this listener included) were afforded that rare experience of discovering a work that was totally new to us, even if the musical vocabulary was well grounded in our ears. Each character was afforded at least one major set-piece, and if we were often at odds over the “do-we-clap-or-shouldn’t-we?-dilemma,” that only added to the evening’s spontaneity.

The riotously colorful production design appeared as though the creators had taken the most magnificent Palekh lacquer boxes, the airiest of Arthur Rackham drawings, and the wittiest work of Maurice Sendak — put them all in a bag and shook them up — and then let them tumble onto the stage of the Royal Opera. Seldom has a stage picture(s) been so effective in furthering the effectiveness of a comic opera.

Mikhailov_Diadkova_Tsarina.gifMaxim Mikhailov as the Devil and Larissa Diadkova as Solokha

Set designer Mikhail Mokrov devised a spectacularly busy show curtain that delighted the eye and established the tone of the proceedings. One remarkably apt effect followed another: a beautifully judged deep blue town drop with the requisite devil painted on the church steeple in a field of orange; meticulously detailed rustic interiors; a host of wagon insets that were as functional as they were cheeky; a haunting moon drop; a joyous Maypole (or whatever-the-heck a Maypole is called in winter!); and tongue-in-cheek flying effects as the characters take wing on their broomsticks.

Too, there was never a false moment in the atmospheric specials and area illumination of Rick Fisher’s splendid lighting design. Tatiana Noginova took full advantage of the vivid possibilities of folk costuming to fashion dazzling attire that was at once eccentric, eye-catching, complementary to the scenery, and complimentary to the performers. Ms. Noginova not only charmed us with faux animal/devil costumes, but also impressed us with the easy elegance of the dancers’ attire for the more formal ballet segments.

Having recently read some article or another expounding on the loss of national personality in Russian voices, that writer obviously never hear this bunch of soloists. For here was a whole cast (not all Russian) who had “the sound.” You know, the kind of edgy, full-throated sound with generous vibrato that the likes of Vishnevskaya once commanded.

In the key role of Oxana (she who asks for her lover to bring her the titular footwear), Olga Guryakova had a lot going for her. A little too much, perhaps at first. In the first act, Ms. Guryakova seemed a bit too loud and full-throated for the music at hand. Her first aria and scene inside the house cried out for limpid, plangent singing above the staff, and while she certainly had all the notes and sang musically, I couldn’t help but wonder what Renee might have made of those hauntingly lovely phrases. But then, whoa, wait a minute! The demands on our heroine ratcheted up in Act Two, and let me tell you, that pretty-as-a-dainty-princess Olga rode the orchestra with ease, and with clarion high notes. Thrilling stuff that. My previous experience with her gifts was in the title role of Rusalka in Brussels last season and I remember thinking then, too, that while she is very talented and stage savvy, I wish she could caress the melancholy phrases as effectively as she commands the stentorian passages.

Cossack dancers

It is perhaps unfair to muse too hard or long on Vsevold Grivnov’s take on Vakula since he was announced as “feeling a cold coming on.” He is a charming bear of a personality that really emanates a happiness to be on stage, and much of his singing gave pleasure. He seemed to be holding back on this occasion, as his pleasing tenor lacked the same vocal presence as his soprano’s. He sings big roles in major houses, manages to pace himself to spout some buzzy top notes when required, and performs with conviction and stylistic acumen. I would certainly love to hear Mr. Grivnov another time when he is operating at full steam.

The formidable Larissa Diadkova is flat out giving the star performance of the show as the witch Solokha. Hers is a rock solid technique with a thorough understanding of communication of vocal line and text, delivered with a killer smile and a set of pipes that can pin you to your seat. Ms. Diadkova is peerless in this repertoire, and she seems to be having the time of her life. So are we. Veteran Sergei Leiferkus may not have the mellifluous spin in his baritone of yore, but he sang with unparalleled elegance and poise. A sprightly Maxim Mikhailov worked the stage delightedly and offered a cleanly sung, cliche-free Devil.

Viacheslav Voynarovskiy and Alexander Vassiliev did all that was required as the Schoolmaster and Pan Golova, respectively, not least of which was walking around “trapped” in sacks to avoid discovery after their lusting visits to Solokha. Vladimir Matorin (Chub) was certainly extremely tall and extremely loud. This is a big voice and a big boy, but I had the feeling that Matorin was content to let his stature and volume do the job of creating a character, of which there is more to be mined with a more thoughtful reading. John Upperton was a secure Panas and Jette Parker Young Artist Changhan Lim showed real promise with a lovely rendition of the Wood Goblin.

Last but surely not least, Gary Avis, Mara Galeazzi and the other dancers of the Royal Ballet contributed mightily to the evening’s magic with highly assured performances of Alastair Marriott’s memorable choreography. In fact, so fine, so clean was the execution of the substantial dance segments, that it had the unfortunate effect of throwing into high relief the fact that the stage direction was. . .well. . .a bit clunky.

I have enjoyed Francesca Zambella’s work on a number of occasions. . .with musical drama. The talented Ms. Zambella seems less attuned to lighter works (at least based on this show and the rather tepid The Little Mermaid.) The cast is certainly gamely giving their all. However, enthusiastic mincing and prancing; unabashed mugging and playing to the balcony; and random semaphoring are not a substitute for comic interaction grounded in honesty and natural by-play. The specificity and focus of the director’s dramatic work were too often absent here.

Conductor Alexander Polianichko offered quite a substantive reading that seemed infused with the correct style and which ultimately blossomed into spirited music-making. For the first third of the evening, however, the pit seemed a bit off form, indeed curiously muted, with a couple of fluffs in exposed solo work that are surprising from a band that is usually spot on. Happily, midway through Act One the group caught fire and kept up a polished rendition to the end. I have to say, it was curious to have reprised the final chorus accompaniment as instrumental curtain call music! A first for me in the opera house. . .

Minor carping aside, the Royal Opera took a gamble that the public would welcome a work that was virtually unknown, and welcome it they did. As the giant golden shoe rolled on at show’s end and served as a lovers’ carriage, I was quite ready to watch it all over and be enchanted again. It is to be hoped that this winning production might have a long life, for the piece deserves a wider hearing. In the end then, the Slippers fit, the audience cheered, and if we came out (just a bit) humming the scenery, it was a grand occasion, fit for a Tsarina.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Guryakova_Tsarina.gif image_description=Olga Guryakova as Oxana [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera] product=yes product_title=Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky: The Tsarina's Slippers product_by=Oxana: Olga Guryakova, Viktoria Yastrebova; Vakula: Vsevolod Grivnov; Solokha: Larissa Diadkova; Chub: Vladimir Matorin; The Devil: Maxim Mikhailov; Schoolmaster: Viacheslav Voynarovskiy; Pan Golova: Alexander Vassiliev; Panas: John Upperton; His Highness: Sergei Leiferkus; Master of Ceremonies: Jeremy White; Wood Goblin: Changhan Lim. Dancers of The Royal Ballet. The Royal Opera. Conductor: Alexander Polianichko. Director: Francesca Zambello. Set Designer: Mikhail Mokrov. Costume designs: Tatiana Noginova. Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher. Choreography: Alastair Marriott. product_id=Above: Olga Guryakova as Oxana

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera
Posted by Gary at 4:28 PM

'Threepenny Opera' makes most of grunge factor

By Robert Hurwitt [San Francisco Chronicle, 8 December 2009]

It looks punk and “The Threepenny Opera” sounds kind of punk at first as well. But it doesn’t take long for the jazzy lyricism of Kurt Weill’s music and scathing irony of Bertolt Brecht’s lyrics to lift the Shotgun Players’ production above the limits of directorial concept.

Posted by Gary at 3:06 PM

December 7, 2009

Iphigénie, La Monnaie, Brussels

[Financial Times, 7 December 2009]

By the simple expedient of stringing two Gluck operas together, Brussels’ La Monnaie has come up with an evening of Wagnerian proportions. For five hours, Iphigénie and Diana warily circle around one another. Surprisingly little blood is shed.

Posted by Gary at 3:53 PM

December 6, 2009

A Faust of Distinction at Lyric Opera of Chicago

The assembled cast of principals and the chorus interacted so convincingly — on both vocal and dramatic grounds — that these performances will serve as a benchmark of performing Gounod’s opera for some time to come. Making his Lyric Opera debut in these performances was Piotr Beczala, who has recently sung the role of Faust to much acclaim at a number of European venues. Marguerite was sung by Ana María Martínez, who portrayed a dramatically and lyrically incisive heroine in this her first assumption of the role. René Pape brought his considerable skills to the role of Mephistopheles, and Lucas Meachem made a great impression as a lyrical and committed Valentin.

Even before the action began on stage the orchestra under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis set the tone with a taut, controlled performance of the overture. A carefully conceived balance was achieved between strings, woodwinds, and brass with the harp then leading smoothly into a statement of Valentin’s theme. A reprise of the strings signaled then the ultimate move toward a subdued resolution.

At the start of Act I in this traditional production Faust truly looks both fatigued and aged. In his dusty laboratory corpses lay under sheets, and the newly dead are being carried in to join the others. Faust is surrounded then by death and the futility of knowledge, prompting him hence to consider suicide. His scene beginning on the word “Rien” (“Nothing”) sets the tone of resignation in the doctor’s famous soliloquy. Only the voices of peasants and youths heard from outdoors prevent Faust from drinking a goblet filled with poison to end his life in desperation. Still these glimmers of happiness and reminders of God’s bounty cause Faust only to curse human endeavor and to cry out for the support of Satan (“Satan à moi!” [“Satan appear to me!”]). From this point till near the end of the opera Mephistopheles and Faust are inexorably linked. In his movements through the set Beczala gives the impression of aging futility, while his committed singing underlines the yearning of so much not experienced in this mortal life. His delivery of the toast to this final day on earth unleashes an emotional conviction to die, highlighted by ringing and extended top notes on “Salût” (“To you”). When Mephistopheles arises, here as a vivified corpse from a laboratory table, Pape’s opening lines are sung in the stylish and effective guise of the “gentilhomme” (“cavalier”), as he describes himself with great melismatic fervor. His ensuing dialogue with Faust, in which he coaxes the doctor to reveal his desire, is performed with a lyrical ease, so that Pape assumes a likeable pose both to the hero and to the audience. When Faust confesses his desire for “la jeunesse” (“youth”), Mephistopheles produces the contract, by which Faust will sign away his soul, along with an apparition of Marguerite to secure the doctor’s commitment. At this point the vocal interaction between Beczala and Pape, in varying each other’s lines and singing in duet, was flawless and dramatically executed. Beczala’s transformation into a young man induced a lyrical enthusiasm for worldly pleasure (“À moi la plaisir” [“For me the pleasure”]) and the quest for adventure. As both figures declare “En route” (“Let us be on our way”), they abandon the confines of the musty laboratory.

René Pape as Méphistophélès

Act II in Gounod’s opera moves from the collective and crowded to the individual At the start a village fair has begun with participants including students, soldiers, young women, and townspeople. Here the Lyric Opera Chorus gave an exceptional performance in its rendition of the paean to wine. Immediately following the choral delights the young soldier Valentin becomes the center of attention. Before he leaves for battle Valentin sings of his concern for his sister Marguerite and begs God to protect her. In this role Lucas Meachem has proven his exceptional agility in the lyric baritone repertoire. From the start of his cavatina “Avant de quitter ces lieux” (“Before departing from this homeland”) Meachem imbued his words with emotional tension, showing exquisite ascending notes on “a toi” (“to You, Lord”) and “ma soeur” (“my sister”). He introduced military imagery in the middle section without bluster and concluded the cavatina on a securely extended pitch at “Roi” (“King of heaven”). The pendant aria to Valentin in this act is “Le Veau d’Or” (“The Golden Calf”) sung by Mephistopheles. Pape’s acting was equally important as he transformed the piece into a dramatic as well as lyrical turning point. Although the villagers marvel at the stranger’s tricks, Valentin becomes suspicious. Faust himself enters and, at last, has an opportunity to address Marguerite. Although she does not accept his overtures, Faust realizes that he loves her. At the close of the act Mephistopheles assures him of continued assistance in gaining Marguerite’s devotion.

The preliminaries of Acts I and II set the ground for the following two acts. In Act III the role of Siébel, sung in this production by Katherine Lerner, shows a further development of her rapt devotion for Marguerite. Ms. Lerner gave an appropriately infatuated rendition of Siébel’s entrance aria while she intoned the verses with care and lush expression. As Mephistopheles and Faust re-enter they make plans for Faust’s further pursuit of Marguerite. Faust’s cavatina “Quel trouble inconnu me pénètre?” (“What unknown care oppresses me?”) was yet another highpoint of the performance. Beczala’s voice remains strong and convincingly produced in all registers, his characterization of the love-stricken hero showing polished, graceful tones and well-placed breath control. At Marguerite’s entrance into the garden she sings the ballad of the “Roi de Thulé” (“King of Thule”), followed almost immediately by the famous jewel song in response to finding the tempting jewel case left by Mephistopheles. Ms. Martínez’s voice is here well suited to the role, her piano notes being securely projected and a burnished quality infusing the voice when she sings forte. Her performance of the trills and roulades in the second aria show also a strong technique for coloratura. After this scene the couples are paired in counterpoint: Marguerite and Faust, Marthe and Mephistopheles. The arrangement will return again later and is especially well staged in the current production. In the final duet of Act III Beczala and Martínez gave a touching rendition of the blossoming love which must, at first, wait and then can be halted no longer. (“O nuit d’amour!” [“Oh, night of love!”]). Mephistopheles laughs loudly as the two are finally united.

In Acts IV and V the earthly downfall of Marguerite becomes increasingly apparent. In the first scene of Act IV she stands at a loom lamenting in her aria this abandoned position and the scorn she senses from her former associates. Despite the faithful devotion expressed by Siébel in his following aria, Marguerite simply questions Faust’s wandering. Throughout this scene and the following, in which she prays in church for forgiveness, Martínez displays a keen sense of dramatic commitment while maintaining a lyrical command of line. In the next scene Valentin returns from the war and learns of his sister’s transgression. The dueling scene that is staged between him and the drunken Faust is a marvel of choreographic daring culminating in the soldier’s being mortally wounded. Meachem sang a convincing scene of Valentin’s death ending with a chilling curse of Marguerite as being responsible for her own dishonor as well as his death (“Marguerite! Sois maudite!” [“Marguerite, be accursed!”]).

In the final act Faust comes, with the help of Mephistopheles, to visit Marguerite in prison where she awaits execution for having murdered the child she bore to Faust. The madness communicated by Martínez is heart-wrenching as she clutches a blanket rolled up as though it were an infant. A last idyllic illusion of happiness between the lovers is sung with great fervor, as Beczala and Martínez participate in an emotional duet, enhanced by both with well executed decoration and melismas. This idyll is, however, interrupted as Mephistopheles steps forward. Marguerite’s soul is saved, as announced by voices from heaven. In this production the contract signed by Faust to serve Mephistopheles after death bursts into flames. The curtain then falls with, at least in this instance, the end of the devil’s power.

Salvatore Calomino

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Faust_Lyric_01.png image_description=Ana María Martínez (Marguerite) and Piotr Beczala (Faust) [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago] product=yes product_title=Charles Gounod: Faust product_by=Faust: Piotr Beczala (Oct. 23), Joseph Kaiser (Oct. 30, Nov. 3, 7); Marguerite: Ana María Martínez; Méphistophélès: René Pape (Oct. 5 - 23), Kyle Ketelsen (Oct. 30, Nov. 3, 7); Valentin: Lucas Meachem; Siébel: Katherine Lerner; Marthe: Jane Bunnell; Wagner: Corey Crider. Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis. Director: Frank Corsaro. product_id=Above: Ana María Martínez (Marguerite) and Piotr Beczala (Faust)

All photos by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago
Posted by Gary at 1:17 PM

December 4, 2009

‘The Merry Widow’: Lyric Opera staging Franz Lehar classic

John von Rhein [Chicago Tribune, 4 December 2009]

The show has been performed more than a quarter of a million times, translated into at least 25 languages, recorded countless times and filmed three times by MGM, most recently in 1952 starring Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas as the romantic leads.

Posted by Gary at 12:12 PM

Le Nozze di Figaro at the MET

I’m particularly pleased that the ring is in its proper place at the final curtain. Remember the ring? (as Anna Russell would say.) This ring is the diamond the Count gives Susanna in the dark in Act IV, as down-payment on her imminent seduction, never realizing that it is not Susanna at all but his own wife on whose finger he has placed it. Subsequently, at the end of the opera, when all stratagems are unveiled, the Countess shows him the ring is on her finger — and only then is he forced to face, and publicly repent, his follies — which she forgives — appropriately concluding this longest and most sublime of buffo operas. In Miller’s original staging — in keeping, perhaps, with that gentleman’s professed disdain for sentimental tradition — she did not show her husband the ring, and he had no reason to believe she was the woman he had wooed in the dark. In other words, though we knew who was who, the Count never found out and we never knew what or whether he was repenting. The heavenly ending became acrid, uncertain, irritating. There was no resolution. Why bother? Why bother ending the music in the proper key? Why not stop five bars short at some other note? Because all things are synchronized here, as Mozart and da Ponte designed them to be, and the palace of Aguasfrescas becomes an idealized version of our own imperfect world, that’s why. Anyway: the ring is now on the right finger, shown to the right man at the right moment, and all’s that much righter with the world.

Another nice touch: Susanna and Marcellina symbolize their new friendship when they bump heads while heading out the same door in Act III — and we are reminded of their feud to the death back in Act I — but this time, as allies, they burst into giggles and squeeze through arm in arm. The effect may be borrowed from Verdi’s Falstaff (and he set it to music there), but it wasn’t an original bit with him either: Figaro, like Falstaff and so much great humane comedy, is about irreconcilables who forgive and reconcile. The audience also loved it when Susanna demonstrated the way a “lady” sashays, and “masculine” cross-cross-dressed Cherubino imitated her — but the audience (and I) loved that silly flounce when my grandmother took me to my first Figaro forty years ago.

Whoever is running the surtitles this year, by the way, is clever enough to know when to let them go dark — so the audience is obliged to look at the stage — and the laughs may come from the activity going on there — and they do.

I wish I’d liked the music-making of this revival half as much as I enjoyed the mugging. None of it was less than major house quality, but few moments transported me. Ah, where have they gone? Those sweet moments of joy and pleasure?

Oropesa_Susanna_Met.pngLisette Oropesa as Susanna

Luca Pisaroni, a lithe, handsome fellow, spry as an acrobat and very much the self-important barber of Seville, has a dark and pleasing voice, suave musicality, and his every word means something — or two things — sometimes three. It is not, however, a voice, on this showing, of supreme power or authority. He was born to please but he does not overwhelm. Still: This was a performance of star quality if not incandescent gleam.

Lisette Oropesa’s light, pert soprano and light, pert performance seemed too American, sassy and shallow, for Susanna, this bride of sense but also considerable sensibility. Susanna experiences much of the pain that gives depth to true comedy, when confused by the Count’s advances, or upset by Figaro’s apparent betrayals. Oropesa’s voice lacks the heart-stopping thrill, the passion of a girl on the brink of true consummation, that the finest Susannas bring to the part. “Deh, vieni, non tardar” was a showpiece, prettily sung — but this is song that must have feeling in it. Oropesa is not a leading lady yet.

Leonard_Cherubino_Met.pngIsabel Leonard as Cherubino

Cherubino got the second biggest hand of the night, after Figaro’s, and Isabel Leonard, quite the most boyish, adolescently awkward Cherubino of my experience, earned that hand with her delicious acting. Her singing was slightly less on target, a bit under pitch in “Non so piú,” but I hope she can build on her good will to give us more feeling in the arias in time.

Annette Dasch has a sizable, attractive voice, and if a run or two got away from her during her arias, that is regrettably normal. She played the cut-up rather than the grand Countess (Countesses are usually one or the other), and she was funny, which suits most of this production, but one missed aristocratic bearing, vocal and otherwise. I missed, too, Hei-kyung Hong’s graceful trick of reclining into visible reverie while singing “Dove sono” — but it probably isn’t easy to sing persuasively in that position if one is not Madame Hong. As with many debutante Countesses lately — and a great many sopranos have made their house debuts in that role in this production — I sensed that Dasch was giving it her best shot but would rather have been singing something else. (Her bio mentions performances as Elettra, Donna Anna and Verdi’s Desdemona, which are all within the Countess’s fach.)

Ludovic Tézier made a colorless Count, lacking both the brutality of Dwayne Croft and the dangerous attractiveness of Mariusz Kwiecien. The Count must have authority, we must believe he is terrifying — at least, that the rest of the household are terrified of him — or none of their desperate plots make much sense. In a production of Beaumarchais’ play some years ago, Christopher Reeve played the Count, looking as majestic as Apollo — and then tripping over his own feet in pratfalls all the funnier for their contrast with his affect. But as soon as he recovered and stood commandingly upright again, we were once again stirred to reverence and fear — and that should be our feeling for the Count. Tézier was gentlemanly (and those damned scene-stealing hunting dogs are happily gone), and the fioritura in his aria were graceful if not quite angry, but he seemed too hangdog to be a threat to anyone. Pisaroni’s Figaro didn’t have much respect for him, so why should anyone else?

Christophoros Stamboglis, a replacement, sang Don Bartolo. He sang the part effectively and played it to the hilt, slipping nimbly into the many ensemble scenes. Greg Fedderly sang Don Basilio well but with a bit — how shall I put it? — too strong a flame. This is partly the fault of the costume — it’s hard to be masculine in lavender satin, with pink stockings and a red wig. Ann Murray made rather a shrill and wobbly harridan of Marcellina, but was most affecting on finding her long-lost son. Tiny Ashley Emerson brought an impressive sweetness to Barberina’s lines.

Fabio Luisi led a brisk, well-paced account of the score — nothing dragged in this long evening of a mad day.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Pisaroni_Figaro_Met.png image_description=Luca Pisaroni as Figaro [Photo by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=W.A. Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro product_by=Susanna: Lisette Oropesa; Countess: Annette Dasch; Marcellina: Ann Murray; Cherubino: Isabel Leonard; Barberina: Ashley Emerson; Figaro: Luca Pisaroni; Count: Ludovic Tézier; Don Bartolo: Christophoros Stamboglis; Don Basilio: Greg Fedderly. Conducted by Fabio Luisi. Metropolitan Opera, performance of November 30. product_id=Above: Luca Pisaroni as Figaro

All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 11:35 AM

December 3, 2009

Imaginative New Opera to Debut in New York

By Lauren Lamb [Digital City, 3 December 2009]

On December 29, the Symphony Space in New York will come alive with The After Dinner Opera Company’s 60th anniversary premiere of The Day Boy and the Night Girl. The three-act opera by Jordan Wentworth Farrar is a modern adaptation of a classic Victorian fable written by George MacDonald.

Posted by Gary at 5:41 PM

New Schoenberg score stolen in Hungary

[AFP, 3 December 2009]

BUDAPEST — Thieves on Thursday stole a laptop computer from Hungarian conductor Zoltan Kocsis containing his version of Arnold Schoenberg’s unfinished opera “Moses und Aron”, MTI news agency reported.

Posted by Gary at 5:37 PM

OperaUpClose: Puccini in the pub

Stephen Moss [The Guardian, 3 December 2009]

Puccini didn’t write any music for police sirens, but their appearance in the tender first act of La Bohème is by no means offputting once you get used to them. In fact they feel completely appropriate for the dodgy area in which the louche flat of our four bohemians is located. The composer had in mind the Left Bank in Paris, but the opera translates remarkably well to the upstairs room of the Cock Tavern in Kilburn, north-west London, where a young cast are rehearsing for next week’s opening, accompanied by sirens screeching through an open window.

Posted by Gary at 5:32 PM

December 2, 2009

Otello in San Francisco

While the SFO program booklet credits the production to Mr. Hall it does not provide a biography of his accomplishments, a tool useful for placing a production in context. That Sir Peter founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and was the general director of Britain’s National Theatre would tell us that we have a theatrically sophisticated director, that he was the general director of the Glyndebourne Festival well establish him as a sophisticated opera director. It would be interesting to know what Peter Hall opera and theater productions have previously played in San Francisco — Chicago Lyric boasts five Peter Hall productions, Denver premiered his ill-fated Tarquinius, Los Angeles Opera gave us his former wife Maria Ewing as his Salome.

However Peter Hall’s Otello was staged in San Francisco by Australian Stephen Barlow for whom there is a biography that includes assisting many directors at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden and staging many revival productions, i.e. originally directed by someone else. Curiosity nags about the original Peter Hall Otello with Ben Heppner and its Glyndebourne revival with David Rendall and if these performances achieved the formidable stature of Mr. Barlow’s San Francisco staging with Johan Botha.

Desdemona_Vassileva.pngZvetelina Vassileva (Desdemona)

Perhaps key to understanding this fine San Francisco Otello is the Desdemona of Bulgarian soprano Zvetelina Vassileva, a role she has previously performed only in Sofia (according to the program booklet biography). Mme. Zvetelina possesses a large, quite beautiful Slavic voice, and seems to be a careful musician. She was able to project a waif like, lost presence, and hold these attributes for the duration of the performance, never complicating Verdi’s heroine with an Italianate sweetness and beauty, or the pathos that Verdi imbued into his last act.

Dressed in white, with a blond wig, Mme. Vassileva evoked Bianca, the phantom lover of Cassio and she was the symbol of the vulnerable side of Shakespeare’s fierce fighter, the inflamed warrior who would succumb to the power of Venus. This Desdemona was not presaging verismo’s melodramatic heroine, rather she was the Venus that destroyed Otello, and therefore she was a part of Otello himself. Mme. Vassileva’s quite powerful voice could indeed equate his presence. She was never his victim, as he himself was his victim.

Shakespeare’s Otello is of course black though current custom proscribes black face, but even so the complete whiteness of the cloth draped stage was in absolute conceptual contrast to Verdi’s moor dressed in brown robes, uniquely exotic among the otherwise Victorian clothed cast. The unit set of the first three acts was an abstracted old Globe wooden theater, abstracted shudders and a ceiling fan hinting a southern climate, simple wooden desks or benches placed to accommodate the actors’ moves necessary to inflame and expose Otello’s vulnerability.

Iago_Vratogna.pngMarco Vratogna (Iago)

In contrast to the Met’s massive Zefferelli, grand opera production, the Peter Hall production is an anti-Otello, the storm is only seen in the reaction of the chorus, the beauty of the evening star is realized on the faces and in the voices of Otello and Desdemona. Verdi’s opera became about Shakespeare’s words, his poetry and Otello’s tragedy, and not about the spectacle of nature’s destructive and intoxicating powers.

In the San Francisco staging Iago was embodied by Italian baritone Marco Vratogna, small of stature, wily, a shaved head, an archetypical untrustworthy look. If Otello and Desdemona were abstracted black and white characters, Iago was real, and really mean, with strong TV drama body language, his powerful voice in grand theatrical contrast to his affected servile stance. He delivered his “Credo” as a shouted harangue, beautifully sung to be sure, downstage center directly at the audience. Chilling, and eminently satisfying.

South African tenor Johan Botha is a real Otello, vocally and temperamentally, a voice huge enough to overpower a melee of his soldiers and establish himself as the invincible warrior, with sufficient Italianate vocal gestures to supplicate the bacio from Desdemona, his hysteria and temper flaring all the while. It was all there in Verdi’s first act, and played out in the following two, Iago’s snakey treachery slowing engulfing Otello in the second act, the moor’s tormented third act soliloquy delivered sotto voce unmoving, leaning against an upstage column in dim light, marred only by over-excited clarinets and cellos in the pit. Finally in a brilliant moment of complex cowardice Otello suffocated Desdemona with a pillow,

If Cassio, though striking in his Victorian profile, was vocally over-parted (i.e. we needed more), Locovico was gratefully under-parted to veteran Don Carlo Grand Inquisitor Eric Halfvarson (no Adler Fellow here). Mr. Halfvarson, as the production demanded, created the power and spectacle of Venetian authority entirely by his voice and presence (and just one small banner of the Venetian lion). Iago’s wife Emilia was beautifully realized by Adler Fellow Renée Tatum, her servile demeanor unwavering until she unleashed our pent-up response to evil and tragedy, and became in those few lines one of the evening’s principal singers.

A scene from Act III

Teetering on the edge of mannered theatricality, the production made the fazzoletto almost a tongue-in-cheek topic. In fact all evening Mr. Hall’s slick theatricality demanded an admiration that competed with the dramatic honesty of Shakespeare and Verdi, or maybe it simply exposed the virtuosity of Verdi’s challenge to Shakespeare’s obvious theatricality. Whatever detractions one may conjure, Mr. Hall’s superb production can perhaps serve as a versatile platform for whatever resonances individual artists may bring to these iconic roles, open to the interpretive creativity of whoever may stage them.

San Francisco Opera’s excitable music director Nicola Luiscotti was in the pit. As we have well perceived this fall Mo. Luiscotti is smitten with creating effects, and there were all the obvious ones amplified, and many more, not the least of which was the aggressive virtuosity of the mandolin accompaniment to Desdemona’s second act entrance. Musically the production was indeed solid, but the music remained illustrative and theatrical, seldom penetrating the poetry. What contributions Mo. Luisotti may have made to the staging and the individual performances are not possible to know, but finally this theatrically brilliant evening was musically and emotionally cold.

Michael Milenski

image=http://www.operatoday.com/OtelloBotha.png imagedescription=Johan Botha as Otello [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Giuseppe Verdi: Otello productby=Otello: Johan Botha; Desdemona: Zvetelina Vassileva; Iago: Marco Vratogna; Cassio: Beau Gibson; Emilia: Renée Tatum; Lodovico: Eric Halfvarson; Roderigo: Daniel Montenegro; Montano: Julien Robbins; Herald: Austin Kness. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Director: Peter J. Hall. Revival Director: Stephen Barlow. Production Designer: John Gunter. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. Choreographer: Lawrence Pech. product_id=Above: Johan Botha as Otello

All photos by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 10:12 AM

December 1, 2009

No need to rise for this Hallelujah Chorus

It was famously said of Mrs Cibber that for her singing of ‘He was despised,’ all her sins should be forgiven, and I can forgive a lot of directorial sins for Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ deeply moving, absolutely committed performance, and for John Mark Ainsley’s characteristic skill in making fluent musical sounds whilst having to perform undignified acts. Sophie Bevan also had a lot to contend with in that ‘Rejoice Greatly’ was taken a little too fast for her, and she had to perform ‘I know that my Redeemer Liveth’ lying flat on a bed, something which no singer ought to be asked to do — those of us familiar with the Glyndebourne ‘Theodora’ will recall how Dawn Upshaw and David Daniels were similarly encumbered at the moment of their deaths, but there it was deeply moving as opposed to annoying, and at least they didn’t have to rise again and don an M&S cardigan. I found it less easy to forgive Brindley Sherratt’s blustery singing — ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’ was off key and lacking in grandeur.

And did those trumpets sound for us? Did we, despite being committed Atheists, find ourselves saying ‘Wow, maybe there is something to all this religion stuff after all?’ Well, no — but we sometimes do just that after hearing ‘Messiah’ in the concert hall. Handel himself said that whilst composing the Hallelujah chorus, he felt ‘as if I saw God on his throne, and all his angels about him.’ All I felt here was the same sense of embarrassment I experience at the end of one of those services where everyone has to shake hands. The ENO chorus seemed somewhat subdued overall, and needless to say I Ioathed the drippy dancing.

Does it work? Musically, yes, and you would expect no less from Laurence Cummings’ ever-dynamic command of the orchestra, but the staging seemed too calculated to appeal to the ‘Christmas-addict.’ Of course, it’s a Christmas show, and if it brings in people who don’t know ‘Messiah’ then it will have achieved much, but somehow I had expected more from Deborah Warner: her concept of the kind of grey workaday world of which the poet wrote ‘So many, I had not thought death had undone so many’ being transformed by the suffering and death of Christ was a bit too ‘happy-clappy’ for me, and the Christmas-card images seemed trivialized. As for the child who kept running about to no discernible effect, I could have cheerfully shot the little tyke, adorable though he was. Jean Kalman’s lighting, as so often in this house and up the road, illuminated the stage with the most poetic sensibility.

Messiah_012.gifCatherine Wyn-Rogers [Photo by Robert Workman courtesy of English National Opera]

Should you go? Well of course you should — you’ll hear some genuine Handelian singing and playing, and you’ll experience one of the great masterpieces in a new and occasionally refreshing light — just don’t expect to be as moved as you were by the same director’s ‘St John Passion,’ and be prepared to put up with a few squirm-inducing moments.

Melanie Eskenazi

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Messiah004.gif imagedescription=John Mark Ainsley [Photo by Laurie Lewis courtesy of English National Opera]

product=yes producttitle=G. F. Handel: Messiah productby=Soprano: Sophie Bevan; Alto: Catherine Wyn-Rogers; Tenor: John Mark Ainsley; Bass: Brindley Sherratt; Child: Max Craig; Treble: Harry Bradford. Conductor: Laurence Cummings. Director: Deborah Warner. Set Designer: Tom Pye. Costume Designer: Moritz Junge. Lighting Designer: Jean Kalman. Video Design: Leo Warner, Lysander Ashton and Tom Pye. Choreographer: Kim Brandstrup. product_id=Above: John Mark Ainsley [Photo by Laurie Lewis courtesy of English National Opera]

Posted by melanie_e at 3:30 PM